Elvis won't eat. He's twenty years old. Mostly he sleeps,
staggers off to the litter-box, drags himself aback--
fur like a thrift-store suit, rumpled, bagged at the knees.
You've been avoiding the trip to the vet--the news will be bad.
For Christ's sake, your wife says, on the third day.
I can't stand it. So you grab an old sweater, wrap up
the shivering cat, put sweater and cat in a cardboard box.
He hates the car, still has enough chi left to yowl the whole way--
he knows where he's going, knows he's not coming back.
The office is bright, toxic with Lysol, sharp funk of animal fear.
You hold the box on your lap. Elvis papoosed in your sweater,
panting, eyes dull. Whatever love is, it's not what you feel
for this cat--sprayer, shredder of chairs, backhanded gift
from a breakup--your ex moved in with her girlfriend,
no pets allowed. Two seats down a woman shushes
her mutt: it yaps at the end of its leash. Then it's your turn.
Good night, old boy, the vet says. The needle slips in.
Elvis sighs, his flat skull in your hand. He purrs for a second
or two and then stops. You can't love what you don't love;
you try to be kind. But the sweater is Brooks Brothers,
cashmere. You've had it since grad school--it's black,
and still fits. Not really thinking, you lift the dead cat,
unwrap the sweater, lay the lank purse of bones
back in its box. You leave him there at the vet's-
no little backyard service for you. You drive home.
Your wife says, That's it? and you nod.
There's not much that keeps you awake anymore:
the future all rumor and smoke, a bus that never comes
until it comes--the past already published, out of your hands.
So what do you do with it, then? Shoved into the closet,
moth-reamed, way in the back. Crouched in its dark corner:
the thing that still fits. The thing you can't throw away.
My Father, After the War
He thought she would like it. He thought
she'd think it was funny. He found his two
wisdom teeth--the Army dentist
had dropped them, clotted and gnarled,
into a pill-bottle wadded with gauze--
Here you go, son, a little souvenir.
He took them downtown to a jeweler,
had them polished and set
into dangly gold earrings, tucked
in a velveteen box. Then, on a date,
he slid his strange gift across the tablecloth.
Delighted, his girlfriend--
a Baltimore heiress whose father
made millions in faucets--opened the box,
turned pale. Closed the box
with a sharp snap. And said, What
in the living hell is wrong with you?
And dumped him right there
on the spot. My father always told it
as though he'd been lucky--
thank God I found out, he'd say,
she had no sense of humor.
But that's not what the story's about,
and it doesn't explain the mystery--
this human itch, salt
under the skin. To set our own houses
on fire. To dance in the beautiful flames.
In middle school, the fourth worst thing anyone
could call you--not as bad as faggot or queer,
and nothing like cocksucker, but meaner than sissy,
and different in kind from dork or dipshit or dumbass
or shit for brains. Fourth worst until Brent Matthews
called Todd Griffin Cuntlips in gym, and Todd said
What did you call me? And Brent said You heard me,
Cuntlips, and it took three teachers to break up the fight.
I didn't know any queers, except maybe David Lee
who sucked off Earl Barber under the railroad bridge,
and poor Ronny Doocey, the lisping boy the jocks
all tripped and mocked, who never fought back.
And I, with no sisters, knew less than nothing
about vaginas--had only seen pictures
in my father's art history books, my uncle's stack
of Playboys--little arrow of hair, neat fold,
but then what? What did I know about anything, then,
except the first hard pull of desire-Valerie Jones
smiling, angelic, slowly fanning her legs open
and closed under her desk, showing her panties
to all the boys--Valerie Jones, who died
of uterine cancer twenty years later.
Well. The rest of the story goes like this:
Brent Matthews propped a loaded shotgun
in his mouth and thumbed the trigger. Todd Griffin
robbed a music store, spent eighteen months in jail.
After graduation, Ronny Doocey disappeared--
no one knows if he's alive or dead. But I know
we didn't defend him. We never stood up
to the cruel boys, their rage, stupid as landmines
and just as apt to go off. And what did that make us?
We didn't defend him. Or Bobby Jo Baird.
Or Andy Rubin. Or Howard Coons, the slow-motion boy
who had seizures. Or Warren Frost, the kid with no coat.
Or Natalie Haneck. Or Lockwood DeWitt...
-from The Mansion of Happiness, selected by Guest Editor Judy Jordan
BIO: Jon Loomis is the author of three critically acclaimed mystery novels set in Provincetown, Massachusetts (High Season, 2007, which was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and among Washington Post Bookworld's "Best Books of 2007;" Mating Season, 2009; and Fire Season, 2012, all originally from St. Martin's/Minotaur). He is also the author of three books of poetry, Vanitas Motel (Oberlin College Press, 1998), which won the 1997 FIELD prize for poetry; The Pleasure Principle (Oberlin College Press/FIELD Editions, 2001); and The Mansion of Happiness, forthcoming from Oberlin College Press in September of 2016. Loomis has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including two Writing Fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Halls Fellowship in poetry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He teaches English and creative writing in west-central Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and family.
PROMPT: As in John Loomis' "Pussy," make a list of forbidden words specific to your own experience as well as to the larger culture. What words are banned in your world/the USA/Spain/the world at large? What words are banned but used anyway? What do those words mean to different people? And what stories do you have connected to those words? Once you've worked up a nice list of words and stories, pick one word to focus on, write it at the top of the page and tell your story in 1-3 pages of couplets, ending on a monoset. At some point, toward the end, the poem should turn, in mood and in meaning. Annnnd....GO!