Rockers | The Exterminator


poems by Clay Matthews




June and the little boy across the street
stands in the middle of the road in his swimming trunks,
shaking. Heat lightning bursts in small bubbles across the sky.
The garbage lid is open. Something is afoul. Something
has died on its back in the middle of the road not far from here,
staring up at the swirling sky. The summer surrounds us.
I remember trembling and sweating in a black suit.
They’ve brought out another funeral tent at the graveyard up the road,
and soon the cars will line up and grieve in procession.
A pocket of rain. A pocket of light. A rainbow now and again
to affirm your belief in the greater system of things.
Something about a possum that wants so desperately to shake hands
with an automobile. How do you do, chrome bumper?
Pleased to meet you, the gnats are driving me wild.
Fried catfish from the catfish pond. In Memphis we eat soul burgers
at Ernestine & Hazel’s and read the old menus, handwritten
with turkey necks and blood. As a boy my brother caught an alligator
gar and fell witness to the long history of the world. Just teeth
biting and falling out all over the place. The moon comes in
now and then through the clouds, growing full like my wife,
our first child on the way, a daughter. How should I welcome her?
How should I describe a world I love so much, fear so much,
what is the first story she should hear? The bank book
sits on the table in disarray. The foreclosures stack up and weep
at the children they’ve lost, the fathers and mothers,
the cheap swimming pools bought half-price at the pharmacy store.
There was the ray, and then the ray became disheveled.
There was disarray. We spread out with privacy fences and gas grills.
We spread the meat out in certain patterns to keep it from burning,
to control the burn. Washing machines get murdered by women
with large loads of grief piled up, then taken out to the woods
and dumped in ravines. The fallen leaves are wet with an ecosystem
of snails and decomposition below. My dog sniffs there and finds
something awful to enjoy. Weeks ago in a creek not far from here
they found a woman’s body in parts. The local authorities
are still trying to put everything back together. The local authorities
are disagreeing. The local authorities are wiping sweat from their brows
and biting into a bologna sandwich. Sweet tea. Sweet lord. Sweet Jesus,
the things we are capable of. We drive out to the lake and swim
out past the debris and trash and Styrofoam cups to where the water
is clear and cold. Some nights an owl hoots in the lot next door.
Some nights I fear for my life. A bird beak in a bowl of honey
will tell you where to go. A sparrow bone is small enough
it will crack sometimes under the weight of a humid day.
I’ve been running up the hill to the graveyard, past the house
where less than a month ago my neighbor Ted shot himself
in the face covered with a pillow. No one knows why.
All we have is speculation—that he felt what we’ve all felt
and been afraid to admit. That his wife felt something different,
and covered something up by having his boys drag the mattress
full of blood out the next morning, and burn it in the early dawn.
Even in our cruelest moments we are soft. I am not afraid.
I am not ready to die. Joseph is the name of the boy
in the swimming trunks. Joseph in the trunks of many colors.
I watch and love him from a distance, wild and free
amongst the older children, running up and down hills
and petting the chained beasts. Ted had just bought some roosters
before he killed himself. And I wonder if they crowed that night,
if there was something in that crowing he could not stand,
or if he heard the owls before anyone else, called them to come, in fact.
The roosters are gone now. They’ve disappeared with all the other
evidence of a life lived, save for his children, save for a sign
in the front of his lawn that still bears his and his wife’s name.
Three times the cock crowed. Three times the train whistle blows
at the intersection down the road. Sunday morning everyone refrains
for a moment from noise and mowing and revving motors.
They shirt and tie. They khaki pants and Sunday dress.
After church they serve it up in the fellowship halls—fried chicken
and sweet potato casserole. The list stretches out over
fold-out tables and chairs, over and onto white button-downs
and floral blouses. There’s just the one water fountain in this town,
and nobody uses it. There’s a still on the mountain somewhere,
abandoned for years. People carry their loads to the edge there
and dump them out. They carry their old carpet, their rage,
their bunk lottery tickets, their big refrigerators, their dead pets,
they carry it all in the back of an old pickup and push it down
into the darkness. They drive away and they never come back.
The little girls pick flowers and wave. The little girls huddle
in the little house, while the boys play ball and let off one firework
every hour on the hour, marking the passing of their childhood
with grief and joy and a loud bang. They prepare for Independence Day,
prepare for the life of their fathers, like Lon Gene, missing fingers
on each hand. June, June, July. The names ring out like an anthem.
We celebrated the first anniversary of our marriage last week,
just one week after my youngest sister wed in an old church
off Beale St. in Memphis. Soon a child will come. Soon more children
will come. Soon the world will end, soon and soon nothing
much will happen and we will grow weary, and find peace
and then fall asleep. All of these I wish for you. One moment of peace
I offer, in the flashing of summer storms and flickering of street lights,
one swing on the old front porch, one breeze, one scent
that you cannot distinguish—your lover or the wildflowers coming in.
The irises have bloomed and now the blossoms become pregnant
and go to seed. I wake and am happy at the smell of pancakes,
the sound of coffee grinding. I wake and cannot pull myself
out of bed, a long dream about childhood and a conversation with the dead.
The world is hot and sweet. I drink beer with a friend and hear a story
about his grandfather, a solider in WWII, getting his pants washed
and mended by a small family in Belgium. I read a story on the news
about a boy gone missing who hasn’t come back. I hear a story about
my mother. So many stories, and I remember as a child running away
to the pine tree in the back yard, hiding under there and watching the stars
come out, the lightning bugs rise up, until the darkness was too much
and I went back to sit under the light of the windows. Sometimes, older now,
though, it’s hard not to crawl out of bed when a storm comes, and enter
the wildness. I know the thunder will keep me awake, the first pelts of rain
will make my skin rise up, the dog at my side in fear. The temperature rises
and we sit all day in the a/c. The temperature drops and the lightning bugs
again do their thing, best of all here at the graveyard, early dusk, as they return
from the sky, lighting the several names written in stone on the ground
like tiny lanterns. I sweat in the basement, on the back porch. The corn
puts on her tassels and shakes in the wind. The woman takes her leg out
from under her dress and observes it, turning it from side to side
like some piece of clothing she is thinking to buy. We’ve spent a long time
waiting for you, daughter. We’ve spent a long time at the windows
watching cars pass and feeling unknown. 11:36 a.m. on the last day of June,
2010, I am surviving. I breathe. The day lilies we picked weeks ago
turn into syrup in the vase. The maple tree sags in its heaviest green.
We put on our lounge clothes and grief and joy and fear every morning.
We don’t take the paper, but all over the news still comes.
My wife, Jan, carries the baby now like a giant melon from the grocery store.
Sometimes she places both hands there to keep her from falling.
The mocking bird sings through everything, the robin chases the bluejay
away. I watch the birds and for one brief moment have absolutely no desire
to fly. The phone rings and the computers hum. The social networks
remind me I am not alone. My mother watches my father looking out the window
in Missouri, and he tells her he’s thinking about this famous old sad song.
We pickle them dilly beans. We pickle them cucumbers. The little market
on the highway, the sweet woman with the wandering eye, our habits,
our habitats, the plums in the small refrigerator. I am losing friends
from age and wives and spatial distance and drugs. I am growing older,
and the news of funerals comes to me from my mother, comes to me walking
on the cooler nights with Jan and the dog through the graveyard on the hill.
I get lost in the mountains, just to make sure I can still find my way
home. I get bbq sauce all over my face and smile.
Wild mustard growing tall and a horse stall. Crazy memories and two
boys in a trough, dipping down out of the hot sun. Soon July will mark
the anniversary of the death of my brother, the uncle my daughter will never know,
the friend my wife will never meet. I’ve been searching for answers
a long time and have found none, only the serenity of sometimes being happy
not to know, only the names writ in water, the passing of time and dreams.
Most years the seedlings in the planters start up and die. This morning
I found a small purple flower there. Does nature sense a lack of permanence?
Does the flower know it will always return? My friends and family
plant themselves all over the place. Every year someone else uproots
and just kind of blows in the wind. There are years of our lives
when we must give up. There are years of our lives when we must fight like all hell.
Have mercy on the broken hearted and steadfast. Have mercy on me, babe.
They feed the calf until she is fat and then they slit her throat.
They milk the goats every morning, they gather the chicken eggs.
I’m ambivalent about what we domesticate, what we’re sweet with,
vicious with, what we sustain. I see long afternoons with the babe
in the crook of my arm. I see a new house, a garden, you somewhere,
hungry again, and we’ll feed you. I don’t see much of anything, the beak
of the bird in honey again, spinning without ever stopping. If it hurts,
I’ll give you a stick on which to bite. If you are tender, I will rub your skin
until it leathers. Each year another moment, some years another place.
They sell about anything you could want at the local hardware store,
the old woman Betty playing Baptists gospels and sermons all day long.
Some days I think I could fill everything up with a Cadillac car, the thunder
of type on a page, the thunder of a storm, the thunder of a v-8 rolling out
down the road. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re waiting
on oh so much. The pears and apples begin on the trees now, in bitterness.
Again the sky rolls over and shows me her sunny side. Bobbers and stink bait.
Pontoons and coolers of cold-cuts. I find my way around the heat.
I dance a jig, we spin and spin at the wedding reception. They pick the banjos
and pull out the handkerchiefs. They dab their sweaty brows. One day
the old man will get out of his chair and never come back. The next day
there will be a story about him, his children and his grandchildren.
There will be a supper, and a little boy stealing biscuits.
Someone will moan and someone will tell a lie.
We’ll be miles away by then, unpacking boxes with the radio on,
and through the monitor we’ll hear our baby cry.



The Exterminator


The inevitability of days lines up in front of me
and I drink a glass of water and go to bed. Morning comes,
and I’m a bit more optimistic. I spent a part of yesterday
in the attic, sweating with a handkerchief around my face,
spraying for bugs. I don’t know if the bugs live there,
they haven’t, in fact, wronged me, but this is something
we sometimes do as people: protect the future with brutality.
Most people are not sentimental about bugs. Or they have one
favorite: spider, bee, lightning bug, ant, some resistance
to the ease with which they swat mosquitoes and flies.
The cantaloupe rinds call out from the garbage can.
I am not sentimental at all. I lie. The neighbor worries
constantly over a small inflatable pool she bought
for her grandchildren to swim in. I’ve helped her set-up
two of them, she says she’s dying from some strange cancer,
and it’s only been a few years since her husband killed himself,
and she starts to cry and I just tug on the edge of the pool
and keep quiet, and wonder about the two electrodes stuck
on either side of her chest, and pray to god that this one
won’t leak like the others. She just wants to float, I think,
which is one of the best feelings in the world. Floating,
and a good buzz, or both. Sometimes I put beer out for slug traps,
and they come in, get all high, lay out minus all their slug weight,
and then die, and I can’t ever really feel sorry for that.
I knew two brothers once who worked as exterminators,
but they were just terrible with people, they couldn’t
even get the nerve up to look a stranger in the eye,
let alone talk to them. So every morning
they’d get drunk to prepare themselves for the long walk
to the front door, the knock, the delay before some old woman
walked out and said, Hello. Or, perhaps they were burying
some guilt about the roaches and termites and mice, perhaps this is all
about some guilt I carry for the things I have killed, little things
and big things, living things and all the things that don’t exist
except in my mind, that have fallen by my hand, sweating
in the summer heat and blown insulation between the trusses
of the roof, light leaking in from cracks at the edge
of the roof, as I wonder what I should do about that.



Clay Matthews