Al Ortolani is a high school English teacher. His poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner,New Letters, Word Riot, and the New York Quarterly. He has four books of poetry, The Last Hippie of Camp 50and Finding the Edge, published by Woodley Press at Washburn University, Wren’s House, published by Coal City Press in Lawrence, Kansas, and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead from Aldrich Press in Torrance, California. He is on the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Writers Place.
For two months I lived in a broken-down bus
behind a friend’s house. I went out a lot, especially
when daylight savings time ended and the weather
turned. Mostly, I was miserable. Confident
in little. I kept two lawn chairs outside
the door of the bus. On warm afternoons I entertained
the thought of guests. Like in an intermission,
we’d watch the starlings along the creek bed.
A cemetery bordered the backyard, and as the trees
lost their leaves throughout November,
the marbles became more visible. Often, their slant
would be the last light I saw before sliding the door shut
and igniting the Coleman catalytic, crawling
into my sleeping bag to read Hemingway by flashlight.
One Saturday night after doling bourbon
into a coffee mug, I decided that I’d shivered enough
from dusk to dawn. I borrowed a friend’s pistol (an antique
he insisted), and I aimed directly between the headlights.
The wound was anti-climactic, a small dent
next to the VW emblem, no sparks, no gaping hole―
just a small crease in the silence.
The older I become the less I care about battling
traffic on icy mornings. A travel mug
with coffee, a dip of snuff, sport’s radio—little helps.
Just yesterday, I took the wrong exit and found
a stoplight I didn’t recognize. Pale sedans
emerged from the gloom, headlights haloed,
drivers hunched over cold steering wheels.
I crossed the intersection and followed the ramp
back to the interstate, merging with the commuters,
the Jo Line, the trash trucks I knew—the turn out
where KayDOT stored equipment, mountains
of sand and gravel—a single light. All exits
lead to morning, ice on the windshield,
the rubber wipers slapping little jujitsu hands.
Forgetting Dante in Third Period
I was reading canto thirty-four to my senior English class.
Virgil was climbing out of circle nine; Dante
slugged toward Purgatory. The storm
that had been building in charcoal clouds
hit the windows—lightning shimmered, thunder banged.
All seven rows turned to watch.
Spines cracked—terza rima flattened. Twenty-seven
copies of the Ciardi translation
hit the wood.
It was a tremendous moment
for forgetting centuries of literature. The rain
streamed in sheets across the glass. One girl
claimed the whole world
was getting scrubbed in a carwash.
Almost Michael Corleone
Your days as the family hero
are over, your cover
as an English teacher blown.
You’ve watched The Godfather
too many times. Suddenly,
it’s you fishing for a pistol
like Michael in the john—Jesus,
the crap you’ve seen,
and now, smoking a Camel
on the toilet—two Xanax
melting under your tongue―
you’re not even certain
whose cigarettes these are.
You realize when you walk
back to your plate of veal
you gotta take the shot,
even if it is imaginary—
a movie for god’s sake—trouble
needs a bullet in the brain.
Within minutes bad guys
are going to email
your mother the pictures
of everything—the booze,
the porn, the women’s shoes,
the impossible stiletto heels.
It’s all going down tonight.