What would they do with them?
Happily murder and warp and pervert them into three legged jungle gym monsters, putrid little hyenas on hind legs with credit cards and shoot em up with knowledge of stocks and bonds and baseball averages and when to say which curse word & when not to?
Who has time for this?
Even scarier: Who wants time for this?
Can’t we fix the crooked sign above the altar first? Clean up some shop a bit, kick a little ass & get the crooked rooked regogos out first??
Can’t we at least let all the children who are children be children first & let them grow up before we implore & ingratiate this planet with more fucking kids??
Can’t we give it a rest, just sterilize maybe two or three billion males for a generation or so. Wouldn’t you want to be able to make love & not worry? Don’t you miss sexual abandon? Wouldn’t it be nice to not care? You could feed the starving babies & we could all take time to get to know one another…That’s a lot of work, isn’t it?
Or are you that egotistical that you need to spill your own seed?
(“It’s not that I dislike children – it’s what they might become. If I had to bear witness to my child’s lack of success I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it. I barely handle my own.”)
My greatest fear would be to have to explain to my child how to lie. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle it. I mastered it early, by observing the sweltering pain & bile festering in my parents’ eyes.
And now children take to these masks like an inchworm making its way across the Last Leaf.
Blue Jean crews.
Madness. Sheer madness. That’s all it is…I sometimes wake up from a deep-sleep & ask myself “Is this all worth it?” Then I ask “What the hell IS this?” And I can’t make sense of the sloppy eyes & dumb mouths carving out slings to wear upon their hearts
& all I think is “There were no slings for hearts when hearts beat & bled or bowed & stood” And I ask the College boy who just got home last summer–I ask him when I pass him and his girlfriend on the stoop: “You ready, College boy?” “For what?” “For all THIS. You ready?” And he doesn’t answer. And my heart (which never had an aspirin nonetheless a sling) twists for this kid and his doe-eyed girlfriend tugs at him begging for an answer
& I try to send a message but my lashes aren’t long enough & she mistakes my popping sockets for some wild-eye battle cry
& now I have to break the cool & say straight out (cause no one knows how to READ anybody anymore): “He’s got time to answer. And when he can’t–he’ll figure it out. Just don’t beat him up about it. Learn the word ‘Tragedy’ first, and understand that we’re just here to be abused. Walk in the direction of oncoming traffic & always be kind to a lame horse. For if you’re as sensitive as he is–they’ll get rid of you, too…it just may not be as quick. If it is–they will not forgive the man who’s quick to dis-assemble.”
She shies me away, He doesn’t look in my eye–so he missed it when I rubbed out all the pennies declared and the sleep that will not go away. “This is important,” she says, and she turns up the volume on their computer screen to watch the latest News Crawl…
“No need for drugs anymore. All you have to do is turn on the TV. Although I doubt you’ll learn as much about yourself.”
In truth, I didn’t know what to say. She was cute & reminded me of my first crush, he was lanky and awkward and prettier version of how I might have looked at eighteen with a Caesar and basketball hands. He was being sent to Tennessee in two days. From there, he’d go into Iraq. He was old enough to be my son. Once he even tried to act like one – he knocked on the door & asked my Lady if he could ask me some questions about Shakespeare since I “speak so good,” & could I help him with his term paper?
My Lady was right not to tear out his delusion from such watery eyes & she said of course I’d help & I’d be only a few minutes & she coerced me into spilling my guts to the kid about crying havoc & letting slip the dogs of war – without mentioning of course that I was unemployed, non-degreed, & increasingly un-published. “But you write a mean business letter,” she teased, “and it’s not that no one will publish you – it’s that no one knows what to do with you”.
She definitely knows how to get me moving, that’s for sure.
I helped the kid with his paper – it was on Lear, not ancient Rome, but it didn’t matter – his future was so far off & away from our water-damaged ceilings and tiny kitchen, it wouldn’t have made a difference how many fancy metaphors or how colorful my language was in expounding on Shakespeare’s tragedies. This sorrow was much greater & deeper & stranger.
“Mr. Kangaleri,” he said – as if I was some Italian Indian who could not speak English – “Mr. Kangaleri, I want you to know I appreciate your help…You…you do a lot…for me.” He paused more than Brando & for a moment I thought this kid’s got something. He’s got something. But whatever he had…he was going to spill out over Iraq. I wondered about his parents.
His mother was a sexy thing – her black-gray hair reminded me of a vanilla-chocolate swirl on an ice cream cone & I always smiled dumbly when I saw her. My Lady & her traded secrets & beauty tips & sometimes Astrology books. She dated a lot and eventually settled on some jerk who told the kid he had two choices: “Eat or be eaten.”
I would have told him he had at least three: “You can be in the fight. Watch the fight. Or produce the fight.” I was still trying to figure out which hole I was in, sometimes it was all three. But at least it meant I was alive, no? Then it dawned on me: no, the only options are the ones you make for yourself. You didn’t have to join or fight anyone’s battle – your life itself is a battle. You don’t need to look for a ring to get into, you are a ring!
I assured the boy he could be whatever he wanted as long as he had some passion. As long as he had a yearning to be free.
That word fell out of my mouth so many times that morning my Lady started to get suspicious. “Stop it, “ I assured her. “Freedom is all we got locked deep down inside of us,” I explained to him,” it’s right there next to love, hate, & fear. And you can get thrown out into the field with the scent of one of them and that will determine who follows you, which hellhound will be blazing your trail.”
This scared him. Although I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that, in the end, freedom was an abstraction. And none of us knew it cause none of us ever had it. “Your grandparents understand freedom. Cause they remember what it was like when they still had to fight for it. The more aware you are of what you can’t do and the more outraged you become – the clearer freedom is.”
The next day his mother’s boyfriend stepped to me & he made it clear my “terrorism” was not appreciated.
He handed me back the books I gave to the boy for his graduation – a well thumbed 1983 edition of Brave New World – which he held out like a bug infested mattress – and the Encyclopaedia Africana – which he said was too heavy for a boy to lug around & anything he needed to know he could look up online & besides he was “Puerto Rican” and “not Black” & he didn’t want to confuse the kid any more than he was. He leered at me sideways & then said, almost proudly, “that’s the book that kid read before he shot the Congresswoman in Arizona. I don’t want my kid carryin’ that shit, you know I’m sayin? That’s like Hitler or something right?”
I had no clue what this man was talking about. And when I closed the door I realized how sad it was that all the smart people I know don’t have children. But who could blame them? How could you compete with these creatures taking over. It was men like him you’d have to contend with at PTA meetings or baseball games or god forbid if your kids got into a fight.
Frederico died eighteen months later. He was blown apart in Iraq. Accidentally killed by his own unit. His body was shipped back to Washington Heights where his mother used all his medals as icons to decorate her front door. Stupid woman.
My Lady showed me a letter Frederico had written for my birthday, shortly before he was killed:
Dear Mr. Kangeleri,
Hope you & Mrs. Kangaleri are doing well. Happy Birthday to you! I took your advice and have begun laughing whenever I say Happy Birthday! You’re right – it makes it easier to swallow, less silly if you just laugh it out and celebrate yourself or your friends by yelling “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”
My birthday was last month and my two best friends, both pilots as well, agreed with me that we could do just about anything if we’d stop accepting and questioned the bigger picture. But I’ll be honest, I have no regrets joining the Army but I do concede that it’s showed me that there’s more to life than picking up a gun or attaining a medal or getting promoted or defending a flag. And the name itself “Armed Forces,” implies a shortsighted, almost limp explanation of what and who we are.
I want to help. Not be an armed force.
They keep reminding me that I’m not here to enhance my understanding of Ethics, but when you are flying over a holy city and all you hear are the sound of a million plus voices chanting & praying to their God, you know that there is something deeper. You told me once you were a failed artist and that you could not give me sound advice cause you had no money and not attained much – but do you remember what you said before I left for basic training? You said you were so far of the radar, that no critics would even review your work cause you had no demographics. And you said you were a writer, not a Newsman, and that half your success as an individual was knowing this. The other half was meeting a woman and falling in love with such a beautiful entity as your wife. You said Mrs Kangaleri was your Pulitzer. Well, for several days, even weeks – I mulled that over in my head, and I let your words wash over my brain.
Flying over those souls as they lay in devotion to a God I’ll never see or understand made me realize what you meant when you first told me to read Shakespeare and Neruda and Langston Hughes or Kafka and then fall in love. You told me a Man should have the experience of having the hairs on the back of his neck stand and a soft ache in his heart at the same time. You said a man sees clearer when this happens, you mentioned freedom, and perception…You made me laugh cause you said these experiences were rare – like getting a woman to reach orgasm or making the perfect cup of coffee or creeping up behind cat without them noticing you or just observing the splendor and pride in the early morning sun. I remembered all these things you said. Well, I did not find my Mrs Kangeleri (yet!) but I am hoping I have time. You told me I should not even think about marriage until I was at least 40.
But I did attain one portion of your assignment:
I felt the hairs on my neck stand…and I understood the promise and the pain of all that a writer struggles to express. And I got that flying over Cairo. In some way, it was like coming home.
I am not sure where this war will lead or how it will end. I am no longer angry for joining, yet I am ashamed at how ignorant I was before. Is it wrong to feel that these people here or more my own people than my family or friends in New York or in the United States?
I think I’m going to be a writer. Aren’t there a bunch of writers who started off in the military?
(Hey it could be worse: I could have become a police officer!)
Enjoy your birthday old man!
I cried like a baby when I read this letter. One night I came home late and ran into Frederico’s mother’s asshole-boyfriend. He couldn’t look me in the eye and a part of me was waiting to see if he’d say anything cause I was looking for a fight. The landlord fucked me on the heat, our bathroom still had molding and water leaking from the ceiling, the kitchen sink still overflowed when these spoiled brats upstairs decided to play Suburbs and use a washing machine IN THEIR KITCHEN.
Yeah, I was already on edge & looking for a fight, a razzled-dazzled gleaming bird of steel and blood was lurking in my chest, for several weeks my Lady was calling me “Jekyll AND Hyde” literally…I was on the move and I felt like the incredible Hulk when this sorry piece of human flesh slimed right by me. I wanted to show the ingrate the letter his woman’s son wrote to me, I wanted to show him how beautiful and soulful this young warrior truly was, but I didn’t say a word. “Lady Kangaleri” would have been proud, she told me later I had to stop wasting my energy on those types of people. Frederico’s mother was not so hot anymore herself.
Her looks had left – I mean fled, and her capacity to talk and think and maneuver seemed greatly diminished.
When her boy died, she kicked out her Romeo and flew back to Puerto Rico. Rumor had it that she had killed herself. I would have if I were her. On second thought, I would have killed that jerk she was fucking for the past 5 years – that sorry sad demon who screwed up her son – and then I would have killed myself.
But she didn’t. After 6 months in the Caribbean, she came back rested, warmer, 13 pounds lighter, and looked a day older. She had a nine-year old brat with her who never ever once looked up to say hello when she passed.
When I asked her who the kid was, she said she was her “heart.” (“she’s my heart, my new duende – isn’t she beautiful? I told my brother let me bring her to New York for a minute and see if she could do some modelling. She’s like Julia Roberts!”)
She then said she was going to open a Tarot Reading business. She said she got a message from Frederico telling her to do this for America.
This is why all the smart people I know don’t have children.
Who would they play with?
A slightly different version was originally published in Lying Meat & Other Poems Beneath the Oil (2011)