Caleb Puckett

Drawn and Quartered
The imperial impulse finally reaches critical mass, and the absolute, alien hour comes like a common white crayon, annihilating all of our rosy visions, cool calculations and sweaty flesh tones until they are little more than faint smudges beside black outlines of ash that swirl in the by-the-numbers atmosphere: 3-2-1-13-57-7-6-5…no surprises but the seemingly capricious arrangement of predictable gestures that shape the aftermath. The world as we knew it now rests in the chilly realm of omission (which we cannot feel, being disembodied), and that omission stands in as our obituary (which we cannot read, being eyeless)—a tragic, static transmission (which we cannot hear, being earless) played on a burning wax cylinder (which we cannot smell and taste, being bereft of a nose and a tongue), yet there will still be at least one sense to waste. Since the transmission consists of our atomized animal magnetism—a psychic vibration of dubious repute, which we do feel to some extent—the universal memory bank is stripped of information until it appears blank—a double dissolution, a two-faced erasure in flattened space, a self-defeating figure even when it seems out the way. Not even a stickman is left to humanize such inhumanism, to eventually round itself out into a three-dimensional cartoon suitable for viewing by primary school children. Not even a hand to draw that simple image rests upon the four-dimensional drawing table that serves as our only clue and testament.

An Apologia for Billy MacGowan

To My Future Kin,
          I woke up with the wind slapping my broken jaw and walked past the pines like a blind dog. I descended into the canyon and noticed it was night, blurred and balmy. I woke again and climbed out of the canyon and into the river, feeling whipped and raw with the snow of December. It was dusk and I shivered with the shadows of the fishes that groped among the sandy trenches. After that I remember very little but the feeling of a pair of fangs in my thigh and a burning in my liver. That was back in 1895. That was before I came to Denver.
          Today, however, events seem much clearer. Thanks to modern medicine I now have a surer grip on chronology and an antidote for what ails me physically. This makes my forays into the high desert less of a hazard. This makes my engagement with nature much more congenial. This allows me to no longer question my ability to settle the West as men must in this time of distress. This seems best if I am to escape my past back East, where I owed a couple of card sharps and hid from the police.
          Still, the snake that bit me and that old saber that nearly killed me keep me in their grips. I gulp another pill, cross myself, and carouse like any sane gentleman in this town, but there’s always a hint beneath the surface, always a bit of a discrepancy between my actions and what passes as purpose. I don’t carry a pistol, nor do I conceal a knife in my boot like a half-bred dragoon. I don’t cry when my faithful horse dies, nor do I become indignant when rustlers tear down my fence lines. Yet, despite my apparent calm, I feel fraudulent. I harbor hatred, or at least a grudge. Those men who left me for dead—those “friends until death”—all met with a violent fate before I had a chance to retaliate. I wanted to crush their souls with unimaginable tortures, draw them in with a forgiving smile and slowly deprive them of their lives, blow after blow.
          The doctor assures me that it’s best for my psychological (not to mention lawful) well being to leave those long gone traitors be—let rest, or rot—just let them disappear as if no offenses were ever committed. He says, “Monty, men have to learn to let things go. If you forget about it you will heal. Learn to steel yourself, m’boy. Learn to move on, make due. Stick with the now and real.” Ah, that doctor—poor doctor! He had no idea that he would stir up such a fury with all that incessant reasoning. After slitting his throat with a scalpel during a drunken confessional a week later, I began to understand such logic, but then it was too late to heed his point. So now here I am freezing half to death in Alaska among a bunch stinking prospectors, calling myself Goldy MacGowan and eating hard biscuits like some two-bit cowboy.
          Oh, my kindred…my kindness…old Connecticut…you have failed me...Anna, mama, papa…an ace and a lace kerchief and a buckboard…the taste of maple syrup…you have failed me…the waste of my youth…purple asters in a circus tent beside the millworks…a gunshot in Gilbert and the girl’s curse…failures...failures…dreams—

          “See,” said Janice, taking up where the letter broke off, “that explains why Billy can’t take hold of nothing, even seasonal work. Rambling’s in his blood, Jim. Just look at how grandpa went about trying to establish himself. He went plumb crazy for trying. That boy’s no different, Jim. He’s a good kid.”
          Jim refilled her Mai Tai and wagged his cigarette in assent, even though he felt that Billy was an inveterate liar and a little prick. He wanted to crack him in the jaw when he returned from the arcade with all of his shiftless friends, but he had an example to set and Janice wouldn’t even hear of it since the last little incident back in Tuscaloosa ended up on the courthouse steps.
          Meanwhile, Billy MacGowan rubbed his greasy haunches in the public library, weeping over some lines by Stephen Vincent Benet:

               unburning fire, an insubstantial host,
               a violence dreamt, a beauty of the ghost.

A librarian, sensitive to the power of literature, came over and patted young MacGowan on the shoulder, but the boy flung him away, shouting: “You—listen here—you balding bastard! Listen, if you ever touch me again, I’ll tear your guts out with a rusty rake and use them to fertilize the weeds growing over your unmarked grave! You understand, pal, huh? Huh?” The boy, suffice it to say, wasn’t raised as a coward and knew how to use a blade in ways that would astound even the most seasoned surgeon in this particular part of Dallas. Sadly, he called himself a MacGowan and would do everything in his power to ensure such a talent would go to waste, or at least that’s what the official reported back in the summer of 1993. But since then his mother assures me that fatherhood and a stint in the military have turned him into a fabulous human being. She even cited this poem he wrote as proof of his reformation:

               Oh, my kindred, my kindness,
               old Texas; you have failed me.

               Hannah, mama, papa;
               an ace and a lace kerchief and a diesel engine,
               the taste of maple syrup; you have failed me.

               The waste of my youth,
               purple asters in a circus tent beside the steelworks,
               a gunshot in Gilberto and the girl’s curse,
               I cannot grow any worse than the sum of my grief.

A Lesson for the Young at Heart

Lest you forget, the primary interest in a toy pony ride isn’t a matter of overcoming a cardboard clown’s rule of height or in clacking forward the arms of a grimy turnstile with all your authoritative might. Nor is it a matter of the pride you get from really playing cowboy for once in your sheltered life. It consists of a simple impulse—kicking the beast of your burden in the sides.

Caleb Puckett has pieces in Dreams That Money Can Buy, Inscribed and The Shore Magazine, among other publications. He has a poetry chapbook, Desertions, forthcoming this spring from Plan B Press.

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