That Giant Check Above the M.C.’S Head at the Fundraiser

Orange County, Kern County, California

All the men are fat and louche
All the women bones and thin,
As children read their Dr. Suess,

Their parents tongue the frosty gin.
The speech is sexy, fast and loose:
The whores are texting for the win.

The bets are on the golden goose
To lard the shelter where they shuffle in
The drunks who need the daily juice.

And donors pose their poses, grin
Their thousand-acre stare, the ne plus
Ultra of “We just don’t care, but in

The scheme of things we need to spruce
Up reputations.” They need to spin.*
Gold-watered dirt runs through a sluice

Out in the desert, where the chuckwalla’s grin
Is only seen from piss-poor stoops
As gold runs back to gold, as winners win.

*The women spun straw at night to win
 These princes. Gold they made for household use.
 The end.

 

Skin

He liked to have the lights on so he could look at and talk about
My peaches-and-cream skin
Though I’m really more pink than peach.
He was a different color but he was half
Of what I was half of,
And our grandparents could have been cousins for all
We knew of the people who had fled that little country.
Everyone who descended from that Diaspora was raised
In the same religion which was cultural
And we were both raised in it.
And we had the same place in our families—
The youngest of six with nagging older
Siblings and sober World War II-era parents when everyone
Else’s parents had worn poodle skirts and leather jackets and lived like Happy Days.       
And even though he liked my skin—well, he said he did—
He didn’t like my vocabulary or my accent;
He was from a serious city while I
Was from a cultural wasteland; he liked
That I dressed “preppy-slut,” he probably liked my fair-haired
Muff, but he went to
The finest university in the country, and I did not. 
He’d ask me not to say
Certain things to friends when we went to concerts and parties.
I wondered if because we were both the youngest we’d never get along.
I was richer than he was: I’d never had to be awarded scholarships
Or worry about funds.
I’d never thought about my skin in relation to anyone.  
He was depressed when we saw
Sixteen Candles and there was that character, Long Duc Dong,
And I didn’t understand how it could depress someone
Though I knew it was a stereotype as bad
As Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I thought he used it as a way to sulk and punish me.
Nowadays I don’t think anyone does things like that
On purpose, but I was young and I thought that men
Wanted to be mean for the pleasure of it.
He was depressed about his future
A lot anyway, and frowned a lot, even though he laughed with me too,
And criticized my
Habits, which were louche.
He was right that I drank and smoked and
Passed out too much;
I’m sure I was not much fun, but he also told me
I was talented in what I wanted to do, more than he, and it was true.
Most of the time I’d be on top, which long-term
I knew I would not like very much if we lived together—
I knew that if I were on top all the time, we would not get along.
He would talk about was my skin; it was
Erotic.  Even with all the not-really-getting-along, our skin was touching
And it felt warm and good, and it feels good to be loved.

 

Children of the Rentiers

Green lawn and white cement.
Deep ocean sand skin view from the lounge chair
Bright, bright blue. Arrogant sun.
Nothing humble nothing subtle.
Spinnakers of American vibrato.

My old friend’s new stepfather’s prescription—
I preferred to mix pills with alcohol
Because it saved calories, overall.
We fell around a darkened living room.

(My parents were in Spain?  Khartoum?  Paris on Rue Chanoinesse
Where I wrote letters in the summers to them?
The family spoke of art history when our conversations digressed.)
Later that afternoon, we ran an errand as a group.

One of them had to pick up her mother’s plane tickets.
I was Gumby, an embarrassment walking through the plaza. 
“Maintain.”  Did someone lead me by the elbow? 
I stumbled on a tree root. I listened to My Aim is True

Over and over,
On a deck as sunset came upon my sunburned skin’s curved youth.
We were always nearly naked.
—But maybe that was later, the next year, another summer, it all blurs, it was
(like scratching a record), mundane and usual. 

Cargo

The box contained my new clothes
All the clothes I had selected closely
The clothes that would enhance my life
The clothes that would make it less of an effort in the morning;
The clothes that gave me joy. *
The box contained valuable—or just make that costly—merchandise—
Floating to my island home like one more miracle.
Which made my life miserable,
Seeing the bill in a month which came to seem
Like a reminder from God or at least
My dead father who could not even stand the idea of car loans, let alone
Credit cards, which were akin to
Las Vegas, created solely to steal the poor man’s wages.
A reminder that I had not stored up enough for times
When they were tough, and they were coming, weren’t they?
Every time the bill got to zero it did not really get there—
There was something else to add, another time
I needed a box to survive,
And it would arrive to change my life:
Cargo coming to shore to save my life—to help me survive
Because cells multiply and must divide.

* (Was it like rising in the morning to think of
The twelve stations? Or the joy others got 
From abnegation and flagellation?)

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Sketch by Dan Vera

Sketch by Dan Vera

Stephanie Brown is the author of two books of poetry, Domestic Interior (University of Pittsburgh) and Allegory of the Supermarket (University of Georgia), and her work has been featured in six editions of The Best American Poetry (Scribner’s). She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Breadloaf and works as an administrative manager for a large public library system in southern California.