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Poetry #411
(published December 4, 2008)
Word Salad
by Leah Mueller
Word salad is when you hear bits of sentences
but none of the words make sense
you explained to me earnestly.
We were probably smoking bowls
in the front seat of your purple 1972 Gremlin
the floor littered with stems and fast food bags
and the occasional foraging parasite.
Drivers screamed at you as they passed.
It didn't matter what you were doing—
parking, making a right turn, changing the radio;
people were always ready to kick your ass for it.
On the last day of 1979
we drove from one end of Chicago to the other
listening to "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven"
while trying to stuff a foot-long bong
underneath the passenger seat.
Three months earlier, you woke up in my bed,
and announced you had decided to become bisexual
because it seemed like the healthy way to be
Then you asked me if I wanted to take a road trip.
You wanted me to show you all the places
I'd told you about, but you had never seen.
We went to the farmhouse north of Springfield
where my stepfather committed suicide two years earlier
We climbed through the window,
crept through the rooms like criminals, staring at the walls
and then drove ninety miles to visit
my bisexual friend Michael in his trailer in Urbana.
Michael was like a Russ Meyers character come to life
or a caricature of Oscar Wilde,
living on a diet of gourmet food and LSD and group sex.
Afterwards you confessed that you didn't like men
but there was a moment,
with one of your hands on my breast
and the other on Michael's cock
when you were completely aware of your power.
Mostly, you were unsure of yourself.
I called you a spoiled suburban boy
with delusions of world domination.
Obsessed with Napoleon when you were in high school,
you had dreams of joining the military
and dropping bombs like anonymous letters.
You couldn't understand why I hated you
even though we were such close friends.
One night we fucked in the turret
of an empty Victorian building
and I almost loved you in a distant kind of way
but you ruined it by telling me
I only showed my feelings during sex
and was an ice princess the rest of the time.
The last time I saw you
we smoked a bowl under a freeway overpass
and promised to keep in touch, but we didn't.
You joined the air force, but
they wouldn't let you specialize in nuclear warfare
because of your marijuana habit
As a consolation prize, they said
you could become an air traffic controller
I liked to think of you making two hundred thousand a year
directing international air traffic with a cocktail in one hand
and a fat joint in the other
feeling completely aware of your power,
but the fact is that you got a medical discharge
for alcoholism and schizophrenia
after less than a year.
The government talked constantly to you
through your dental fillings
conveying urgent, garbled messages
that didn't make any sense.
You returned to your Midwestern family,
who corralled you in the den, like a dog.
They taught you to play a mean game of bridge,
while you chain-smoked and tried not to drink.
It was impossible for you to live alone
without somebody watching you.
One morning your parents found you on your kitchen floor,
naked and covered with wounds.
No one knew if you'd been beaten
or simply had fallen repeatedly.
You survived a coma and two brain surgeries
only to die in your bed a year later from a fire
caused by an unextinguished cigarette,
leaving behind two children, three ex-wives
and a pair of secretly relieved parents.
Your mother still lives in downstate Illinois
chain-smoking while attached to an oxygen tank
wondering why you were so self-destructive.
I'd rather think of the two of us
spray-painting the cement wall behind the Adler Planetarium
or hitchhiking to New Orleans in January,
being chased by angry truckers, and escaping.
I'd like to feel that we both escaped,
but I guess only one of us did
and I'd like to think that you found your power
once you let go of your body,
but your body is probably in a rural Illinois cemetery
with a bucket of artificial flowers on your head.
Not even death can stop you from being a loser,
but at least it makes it easier for others to ignore you.

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