She counts the chairs in our dining room, one, two, three, four, five, six. She points to each chair as if unconvinced, her brow furrowed in concern. She circles the dining table and counts the chairs again and again. One, two, three, four, five, six. I lose track of her revolutions. My leg begins to cramp, where I sit on the staircase, crouched in the shadows. I feel cold. It is later than I thought. But she is almost done. She touches the backrest of each chair. She grows weary now. When she collapses in a chair, I will bring her tea. She will take it and I will wonder as I always have if she ever thinks about where the tea comes from
i got off the bus,
driver says: twenty minutes.
peed in clogged toilet,
then a fag and black coffee.
no longer me, not yet her.
Inspired by Mark Renney’s poem, Any Orders Before Time, here’s a story about Bukowski I wrote a while back…
He let me hang around after the poetry reading when I promised to pick up his tab. We’re at an outdoor bar, sitting on unsteady stools or I’m drunk. I tried to match him whiskey for whiskey. Patpong Love Bar: and he’s reciting an old poem about prostitutes ‘that make you want to tear up paintings and break albums of Beethoven across the back of the john’.
‘Women of such significance, such beauty,’ he calls out to the emaciated whores on the steps of the bar next door, who are giggling, wondering whether they ought to try their luck, knowing I’ve already laid claim to him, this ugly man, but cash is cash. ‘Society should realise the value of the whore,’ he says ‘those who make it almost an art form…you feel liberated and human again for a mere $3.’ He raises his arm to make a point and knocks my whiskey off the table.
‘How much do they pay you, my beautiful pussies? How much would it cost me to feel like a man again,’ he asks the tallest of the three, the one whose eyes slant upward, eyeliner thick and precise. But she’s not a she, though that no longer matters. Not to Charles, not tonight.
He mumbles about the drudgery of everyday life, its pathos a familiar refrain in his poetry and stories. ‘The problem was you had to keep choosing,’ Charles says, ‘between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you.’ He leans in close, I think he will kiss me; I open my mouth slightly, and he says, ‘The truth is: the free soul is rare.’
As he drinks, the cracks between his monologues widen and I fear that one of us will slip through. And what if gravity disappears? Charles will hang on to the flame tree above us and spy my purple knickers under my black dress as I ascend, swallowed by space. He will move on to the women quick-witted enough to grab hold of something rooted to the earth.
Then he asks if I’d like to fuck and I’m embarrassed even when it’s ridiculous to play coy now. I drop the pretext of drinking and stare at him. I want to trace his face with my tongue.
3am, my phone says, and in three and a half hours, dark will give way. I tell Charles I want to leave now. I hate seeing these streets gutted by light. We walk over to a cab on the corner and shake the driver awake. An extra 100 baht and he’s keen to take us back to my flat.
In my room, Charles is suddenly tentative; while I shed my clothes, he escapes to the kitchen for a bottle of beer. We are both swaying and I wonder how we’ll get through this without hurting each other.
I sit on the bed naked, there’s no reason to feel awkward in the presence of a man who worships women. When he comes to stand in front of me, he caresses my cheek then gently pushes me down on the bed. We kiss and I smell booze and famine. He pinches my nipples hard with his fingers, cups my breasts, and sucks cries out of a mouth that has long been mute. A gentleman, he kneels on the rug, and covers my cunt with his mouth.
He enters me. I feel him lose control. I cross my legs around his back and grip his thighs, urging him deeper. His cock has gone crazy. I scream but the sound is muffled. It erupts from deep inside my belly. He comes then, shuddering violently on top of me. He raises his fist and I think he will smash my face, but at the last moment he brings it to his mouth to smother a moan or a cry. He has been away too long and still too close to death.
Later, he lights a cigarette and out the side of his mouth, ‘Did you fuck the poet or the man?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Yes, it matters because if I fall in love with you, I want to know how it started. You might be one of the knives that stick me,’ he says as he rolls over to sleep on his side. ‘There’s an old one stuck into me in 1955, you can take its place.’
Lying next to him, I bite off the chipped end of a nail as a question carousels in my mind. In his last novel, Pulp, written as Charles was dying of leukemia, he wrote about a gigantic, glowing bird that had come to claim him. Death approached and he didn’t blink:
Then, as I watched, the Sparrow
slowly opened its beak.
A huge void appeared. And within the beak
was a vast yellow vortex,
more dynamic than the sun,
I stare at the back of his head.
He knows what’s on the other side, what happens to the soul when it’s evicted from its body. If there’s such a thing as a soul. I shake him awake and my ferocity disturbs his slumber. ‘I need to know,’ I say, ‘I need to know what happens to you after. Is there something or nothing?’
Bukowski turns over and looks at me with such understanding I have to suppress the urge to punch him in the face.
art by Christine Wu
Bukowski quotes taken from his novels Ham on Rye, Women, and Pulp. Also from his poetry collections, The Pleasures of the Damned and Love is a Dog from Hell.
What was she thinking when she came in this morning to find the knives gone? Did she notice they were not in their usual spot on the marble kitchen counter next to the coffee maker? She probably came across them as she dusted the top shelf, where he stashed them last night, to keep me from carving my wrists, a clean cut down my arm, a thin cut across the chicken’s neck and grandma held the squawking thing over a plate of rice and bled it dry. When I couldn’t find the knives I turned to wine, bottle half empty and forgotten in the crisper, it tasted like vinegar. I emptied the wine in the sink and then elation! I smashed the glass against steel, cradled a shard in my palm, and foetus-form fell to sleep.
It was a butterfly that drew Aisha’s gaze to the bus stop across the street, where her husband was leaning against a lamp post with his back to her, facing a woman who was standing too close.
Aisha was invisible, on the other side of the road, inside a boutique, pondering a scarf.
She first saw the butterfly on a mannequin that wore a flowered dress. Later it was perched on a windowsill, staring outside. Aisha crept towards it, sat on her haunches, and watched its wings quiver in the air-conditioning. Then she found herself looking out the window too.
Aisha forgot all about the butterfly, and as she leaned in closer, her forehead slammed against the glass.
The sales person jerked her head in Aisha’s direction and Aisha waved her hand to say I’m sorry, I’m all right, please don’t fuss. The sales person turned away reluctantly, suspicious now that the woman in the hijab would cause more trouble. She caught the eye of a fellow worker and shook her head.
Aisha continued staring out the window and watched her husband run a hand through his thick, black hair then lay it on the woman’s shoulder. He pulled her close and Aisha thought she saw him kiss the top of the woman’s bare head. Aisha felt a rage that was terrifying in its volume. She saw herself walking up to him and, discarding her usual reticence for public displays of emotion, slap him until her palms stung.
She reached inside her bag for her mobile phone, watched her husband pull his out of his back pocket, glance at the screen to see who was calling, raise a finger to the woman, then turn away to take the call. He was facing Aisha when he placed the mobile against his ear. He said hello, but Aisha could not respond.
He said hello, hello, Aisha, are you there? Then he hung up. She could see he was unnerved because he looked up and down the street and ran his hands through his hair again. Aisha’s own crept up her face and formed a cave over her mouth. ‘What were you thinking, bastard?’ she whispered. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. When she was empty, she straightened her shoulders and walked to the cashier with the scarf in hand. She pulled out a credit card and laid it on the counter in front of the clerk. Aisha turned her head sideways and looked out the window.
The clerk, who had been watching Aisha, scrutinised her face as she rang up her purchase. When she was about to wrap the scarf in paper, Aisha placed a hand on the fabric and said, ‘No, I’ll be wearing this.’ The clerk nodded and handed her the scarf with the credit card and receipt.
Aisha thanked her in a low voice and exited the shop. Outside, Aisha looped the scarf around her neck and thought of nothing.
This story was inspired by Josephine R. Unglaub’s My Butterfly, My Axe.
You wore a skirt, it was purple, a favourite, its lace fringe limp against your brown thighs. And a pink translucent blouse, the top buttons undone from which a crucified Jesus danced in and out of hiding. You wore high heels that made you stumble on mean streets, but this was just you dancing, you liked to say.
We walked to the local store past hawkers and taxi drivers stealing siestas on front lawns. You must emit a kind of energy that reshuffled the molecules in the air because they roused themselves each time you passed by. Catcalls and laughter were common fare but on this particular day it was, Flip up your skirt! Show us your cock! Or did you finally get it cut off? You turned your head gently from left to right, a warning to me not to respond. It’s the August heat, you said, it makes men and street dogs vicious. I turned around and gave them the finger. Their laughter was sharp and cut.
When we entered the shop, Mr Lee scowled at us from behind the cash register, dabbing at his shiny forehead with a frayed yellow rag that hung around his neck. In the dark, fan-cooled interior, you stood silent, staring outside, past the glass door, at shadows supine once again on the lawn.
My hand slipped into yours, are you alright, it asked, and you squeezed my hand tight. Let’s go get you your candy, darling.