A Poem and A Poetic Essay by David Tomas Martinez

Neighborhood Watch

When ice cream was
the only bribe needed

to tell my grandmother
my cousins walked
the canyons to meet
with their boyfriends,

I should have asked
for a soda, too.

When I leaned against a fence,
playing with a chicken bone
breaking with cracks from the sun,

when only me and a recliner’s bones
or the bleached skull of a plastic bag

could be seen, I could’ve
panted in some heat, too.

At nine, I had no language for lonely,
but could watch cars swim laps forever.

The fence shared a common tongue,
but had no place to go,

if it no longer liked where
it lived, could not move

to my neighborhood,
where we were
racist neighbors,

suspicious of strange fences,
where cars piled in our dirt yard,

and no one listened to the pink
seat of a swing as it licked
the ground on only one chain.

 


 

Motion and Rest

A bird picking twigs and stray paper would seem to be safest in motion, stasis being the natural
precursor of stagnation and death. But this Spring I have seen two yellow birds picked while in motion.
A bird poked the grass for food when a cat in full acceleration and leap, pawed it out of flight. A week
later, during a break between classes, I reconciled with a woman on the phone. Another bird skittered
among the branches. I made a big show of insinuating to the woman that she had competition, when a
falcon swooped and clutched the bird in its talons only five feet away from me. I could only continue to
talk on the phone; genteelly remarking, with no shortage of smiled pride, how commensurately tenuous
life is for the dancing cautious and those stricken with motion.

                                                                        *

The only animals I saw growing up were pigeons. These ubiquitous little hipsters, their
mismatched feathers and congregating ways, are rarely targets of predators. Besides the danger of
unsuspecting cars, pellet guns, or bored teenage boys with Alka-Seltzer, pigeons amble the streets of
San Diego. Their necks wiggle when they walk. In Houston, the circle of life is much more evident. I
share my yard with cats and dogs, blue jays, cardinals, owls, with possums, squirrels, mosquitoes,
cicadas, and cockroaches. They are the autochthonous residents; we have come to a silent truce. And
that is the paradox: in San Diego, I was more scared of a car driving through the neighborhood. I was
quicker to violence, didn’t think twice about putting a shoe on a spider. In Houston, I have only seen the
violence of nature. I have new fears. I am more scared of a possum’s eyes and tail, of walking to the
grocery store and being bitten by a stray.

                                                                        *

My father spoke in tongues, never wore clothes with peace signs because my mother
took the symbol for broken crosses, and I spent each Halloween dressed as a wise man with a
bathrobe for a thawb and a dishtowel and sweatband for a keffiyah; and despite this childhood, I have
never worn my parents’ notion of a spiritual world or an afterlife. Dreams can mature in to belief. After
a nightmare about a former girlfriend, I felt the urge to do laundry. In Houston, oak trees canopy the
streets, and the concrete has been uprooted by hurricanes and heat. The sidewalks and driveways are
cracked, as is the laundry room floor in my garage apartment. I live on a corner lot where once a house
stood. Missing things hide. In my apartment, when the wind blows, it shakes, and when I walk, it
speaks. How the garage apartment came to have no accompanying home, how it lost guidance, I have
no idea, but I believe the house was smote from the earth.

                                                                        *

The legend goes like this: it was a dreary morning. The house slept but the renter lay
awake, shivering in his own fears. Love had pulled up her hair. Climbing out of bed sweaty, he sorted
clothes. Colors with colors and whites with whites was the only way to separate his situation. Isn’t that
how we learn? Everything in its box and everything in its proper time. The whites must be washed first,
bleach was the order he sought. So out with his blue plastic basket he creaked across his bedroom to
the living room and down the stairs, unlocked the laundry room deadbolt and turned the handle. Now I
must explain: the renter was not a religious man, but his mother had always felt deep within her bones
that he was a prophet. He was named after his father and her favorite bible character. Upon his arrival
at adulthood, she was mightily disappointed, but still handed him a set of keys to her house, and showed
him where the paperwork was hidden. So when the rapture comes, he should get what he could for her
home. She was pious. Her husband was pious. Frogs are pious. But the renter was not pious because
when he opened the door six frogs waited at the cracks in his laundry room floor, their throats flooded
with croaks, swallowing him whole. In moments of judgment, all things are possible, frogs ride on the
back of concrete cracked by scales, only to slowly, without turning, ease back into the earth, one croak
at a time, as the house did, leaving only a garage apartment.

                                                                        *

Often the most ordinary fears obscure the most obvious truths. The frogs of the
apocalypse visit me. When I spoke again to the woman who wouldn’t reconcile, I told her about the
two birds, she said it was a sign. Her accent lingers on the phone’s receiver, pitches phosphor and
smoke. When I was younger, and cars with killed headlights sped through our neighborhood and no one
was shot, the first question was, what sign did they throw up? The world brims with signs. We feel the
ineffable movement of the frock of god never far from our actions yet we are never near the actions of
gods. Escalators are the most honest deus ex machinas; in their thawed stillness, in their motion and
rest, they capture paradox. My life is an escalator of hiding my stinger from my own apocalypse.
Everyday I cross from silence into speech. Every day trickles of people whisper over the border with
their children or for their children, like Nicodemus they believe they must reenter the womb. On the
interstates and roads with the heaviest traffic of illegal immigrant crossing, the silhouette of a family
running is posted; like the signs for crossing deer, they show us the hunt. Show us which signs to climb.
Tell us to wait for heaven; to run the world from the kitchen and back lawn, or for husbands to speed
ahead and let go of their wives, forget the child. To take the proper shape. To tell us the color of
caution. To tell us the last American exit. To show the rest of us the free way.


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