2 by david trinidad
Man with Toy
This miniature plastic tea set
for half a century
so he could find it
on the Internet
and purchase it
but not Mattel
(“Don’t accept imitations!”)
“Made in Hong Kong”—
for one of Barbie’s
not as expensively dressed clone,
ponytail of molded plastic,
that hung on toy racks
in that bygone
era known as
He loosens two
from the age-tinged
plastic bag, a blue
pink teapot (with lid),
four blue teacups and saucers
and slender “silver” spoons,
and arranges them
in the plexiglass
on a bookshelf next to his desk—
each piece bright
and cheerful as
the day it was
in an exotic land halfway
around the world
from the suburb
where he coveted it
(or one like it)
as a boy, a trinket
untouched by fifty years
of wars and disasters,
a ten-cent toy
that traveled through
time and space
by virtue of its irrelevance
and mass-produced grace:
“Someone might want this one day.”
What was I doing in Lawrence, Kansas,
in William Burroughs’ lakefront cabin,
in the middle of a lightning storm—
multiple bolts flashing from
illuminating the violet night sky,
jagged white laser beams randomly
pounding, it seemed, the ground,
sprouting veins, electrified tree-roots,
advancing across the helpless terrain
like an alien invasion.
Ira was on the phone with James:
Sure, we could go down to the basement,
but it might be locked, he didn’t
know where the key was. No one
had been down there in years, god only
knew what we would find—spiders
and whatnot. We’d have to use
a flashlight. It was stuffed with old furniture.
From the kitchen window, I watched
the strikes get closer and closer
until, overcome with fear,
I crouched on the bathroom floor.
Thus passed the first night
of what was to be a two-week “vacation.”
Every morning, I chauffeured Ira
(who didn’t drive) around the lake
into town, to James’ house, where
he and James would work all day on
Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader,
then doubled back around the lake
to the cabin. I tried to read
and write, but went stir-crazy
meeting the gaze of the deer head
mounted above the stone fireplace.
So found myself roaming the area
in our rental car. I hit every used bookstore
and antique mall I could find.
In a display case of collectible toys,
I eyed Sheath Sensation, an early
Barbie outfit (fireman-red cotton sheath
with four gold buttons and two
deep pockets, short white gloves and
open-toe pumps, crisp straw hat with red
ribbon hatband), NRFB, and bought it
for $225.00. Not a bad price,
though it would make Ira mad.
This purchase, as far as I was concerned,
made the trip to Kansas worthwhile.
I bought a red felt Disneyland
pennant (pristine) for $10.00.
And a number of vintage DC comics,
which I read late at night after Ira
had fallen asleep: Superboy
and the Legion of Super-Heroes
in their colorful, tight-fitting costumes.
Each possessed his own unique power:
Chameleon Boy, Lightning Lad,
Sun Boy, Invisible Kid. It was mid-July,
and hot, so every day I found myself,
after shopping, at the stadium
movie theater on Iowa Street.
Twelve films to choose from. I saw,
in those two weeks, Men in Black,
Contact (twice), The Fifth Element,
Hercules, Breakdown, Nothing to Lose,
Love! Valour! Compassion!, Operation Condor,
Con Air, Face/Off, A Simple Wish,
and My Best Friend’s Wedding.
I wanted to see George of the Jungle
because I thought Brendan Fraser
was cute, but never got around to it.
Each evening, we convened at
Burroughs’ house for dinner.
Dragonflies flitted above the tall grass
in front of the famous bungalow—
painted barn-red with white trim.
A trellis on the side of the porch
dense with red rose blooms.
The screen door creaked open.
Bone-thin and frail, hunched forward,
Burroughs looked at me
suspiciously. I don’t believe
anyone bothered to tell him
who I was. I had little interest
in his work. I’d read Nova Express
in college, only remembered
that I’d found it difficult. Did he sense
this? Or was it obvious—I didn't
fawn. He wore a green army jacket—
even in the heat—looked like he
was shrinking inside it. But not
from lack of sustenance. The literary
lion was well fed: salad with
Paul Newman’s Ranch Dressing,
curried lamb, rice, snow peas, bread
and butter, strawberry shortcake.
We sat in a semicircle around him,
holding our plates, while he talked
nonstop throughout the meal,
in that growly gangster drawl
I was familiar with from his Nike ad.
I don’t remember a word he said.
Periodically he began to choke
on his food, James futilely
reminding him not to talk
while chewing, and everyone froze.
Dear God, I thought, don’t let
him drop dead in front of us.
(He would, in fact, die of a heart attack
two weeks after Ira and I went back
to New York.) Rather than sit
there uncomfortably, I helped clear
and wash the dishes. To me, the house
felt dark, oppressive. His collection
of hand-carved canes and walking sticks,
in an umbrella stand in the corner,
struck me as creepy—a far cry,
admittedly, from mass-produced
toys. Two red skull candles
on a ledge—one of them unlit,
the other burned halfway down.
I noticed, on the coffee table in
the dim living room, a burgundy-colored
paperback, Tennyson’s Selected Poems.
I asked him about it. There were
great titles in there, he said, to be lifted.
He showed me “Ulysses”; I sat and
reread it in his presence. When
I took my notebook out to jot
something down (not about him),
they all (even Ira) pounced on me:
What are you writing? Note-taking
was verboten—who knew. If I
hadn't been chastised, I might not
have secretly taken the few notes I did.
That he liked gum drops. That he
smoked pot throughout the evening.
That feeding the goldfish in the pond
in the backyard was the high point
of his day. At dusk one night,
two boys from Alabama knocked
on the screen door. One of them blond,
the other redheaded. Both utterly
in awe. He went out onto the porch
and talked with them, posed for
photographs with them, signed
books for them. On the sly, I recorded,
on a pink Post-it, my impressions
of him: energetic, fragile, childlike,
lonely/sad, wounded in some
fundamental and tragic way, sharp
and manipulative, didn’t miss a thing.
On another Post-it, what James told
Ira to tell me to get at the market:
vodka (Smirnoff), rice, lima beans,
peaches 'n' cream ice cream.
Dennis Cooper’s name came up
in conversation. “He’ll get nothing
more from me,” snapped Burroughs.
(Dennis had trashed him, apparently,
in print.) Toward the end of our
trip, he invited Ira and me to go
shooting with him. We declined.
Neither of us wanted anything to do
with guns. He produced a photograph
someone had taken of him through
the trellis, surrounded by red
roses. “A venerable old fuck
giving orders to his assassins
through the roses,” he growled.
“Message of roses . . . message of roses.”
I locked the bathroom door
behind me, pulled a pink Post-it
out of my back pocket,
and, like a spy, wrote it down—
just because I’d been told not to.
DAVID TRINIDAD's most recent books are Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera (2013) and Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems (2011), both published by Turtle Point Press. He lives in Chicago, where he teaches poetry at Columbia College.