In the summer of 1998 I was a lantern-
I mean waitress,
but all the same
the water was freezing cold
and the pressure was pulverizing.
yet (animals) somehow survive in this most extreme environment
which was the Mucky Duck Shanty (bar and grill)
we wore yellow or blue polo shirts with a duck on them,
Big fish tank when you walked in, I was so bad
at the job,
because of lack of experience, no not really, it was the “clinical depression” I think
The first challenge
animals encounter as they move deeper
is the complete darkness.
I never spoke to the other staff members because
I didn’t understand how or why one might do such a thing
Some deep-sea fishes, like the stout black smelt , have giant eyes
to capture the faintest glimmers.
I even fucked up the sweeping–
I would sweep every straw wrapper and crouton
into the dustpan individually and the boss
had to tell me, “ya know, you could just sweep everything into a little pile then sweep
that whole pile into the dustpan.”
I mean, Christ, I knew that. but I was underwater
and the extreme pressure between the sea floor and the surface
make the creature’s survival on the surface near impossible
The bartender kept raising his eyebrows when my dad came in
and ordered glasses and glasses of wine:
Some have giant eyes to capture the faintest glimmers Others have abandoned vision
There was a soup called tomato potato cheddar and beer
(which I always thought was a great name).
If I ever reach the surface I will tell the owner
how much I admire her and her soup
and we will laugh together
and make eye contact in the light.
The Light in a Corner Tavern
is otherworldly at 4 p.m.,
especially when you’re a kid
and the world is so vast:
the K &R Saloon glittering
like Versailles, big enough for a pool table
and a pinball machine,
leaded glass windows looming.
My dad and I would stop in after school
and he’d lift me up to taxidermied buffalo head
secured to the wall so I could pull his
scraggly beard for luck.
Ma Bell’s on South 12th was smaller,
just Ms. Pac-Man
and a cigarette machine.
And the dartboards, of course–
Mom shot darts once a week,
said she wasn’t great at hitting bullseye’s
but always got the triple 20s.
Daddy tended bar a few nights
a week and ran the football pool.
Nighttimes were magic–the glow
of the lights behind the liquor bottles,
men slamming heavy cups
of dice onto the bar. The Mills Brothers.
Conway Twitty. Haze of cigarette smoke.
I liked to sit at the bar to drink Coke
out of a pilsner glass, looking
at the dirty dollar bills stapled
to the wall, wondering why
we couldn’t spend them–so much money!!
The bar stools covered in duct tape,
perfect for spinning until you got sick.
But the popcorn machine was a fraud:
it didn’t pop anything.
It was just a glass box,
faded red stripes on the sides
and a lightbulb–
just reheated the stale stuff
from the giant bags,
served in coffee filters.
Once Daddy took me to the basement
with him to change the kegs.
The cellar was low-ceilinged and freezing:
a secret glacial domain–only accessible
through a door in the men’s room,
thick with the uncanny smell
of what I later learned
was urinal cakes.
I remember being scandalized
the day Daddy worked the Saturday morning
shift and put up the big poster
of a blond girl wearing rollerblades
and a very small hot pink bikini.
She was leaning on a graffitied wall
that read P.B.R. Me A.S.A.P.
I was at the bar assembling my Barbie
refrigerator set, hoping
the poster was just a venial sin
and not a mortal one–
they hadn’t specifically covered
bikini girl posters in religion class
at St. Cyril’s, but I got a heavy ‘sin’
vibe from it. A venial sin you can atone
for, but mortal sins were really bad: mortal sins
Water moves through my splayed fingers as the pills
bob slowly downward, dissolving into sleep.
I’m deep enough to leave the rage
dappled along the waves. I can escape the light
piercing the surface. Now I hope
to devolve sweetly into piscean sludge, fear
only the creatures I should fear,
and open clams to catch the sinking pills.
I’ve disrobed, left my shoes and my hope
soggy on the shore: learned how fish sleep–
eyes open, gills fluttering. The light
is diluted down here, and the moon’s rage
as it yanks on the tides is a muted rage.
In drowning, one learns not to fear.
Here there is no shame of racing from daylight,
and we lose the desire to digest all these pills.
Kelp-strangled, we twist into sleep
and nurse the saltwater hope
of shedding our teeth. I hope
to swallow some gravel and grind this rage
into a fine sand; rock it to sleep
in my belly. People on the dock fear
this place, need to feed themselves pills,
drag it into the light,
and tell it to lie still. But here is a secret about light:
it likes to drift and liquefy, it has hope
that it can turn inside out and bleed the pills
from its pores. It is only stirred to rage
when held by the neck. Light and fear
are both aquatic; sleek. Sleep:
Don’t bother with us if you cannot sleep.
We don’t want you; we don’t want your arid light;
we don’t want your smell and your inadequate fear.
But please, if you do sink down, don’t hope
for respite from the rage,
just a shield from the waylay to pills.