"my first embarrassment," "44," and "fried chicken and waffles"

my first embarrassment

the concrete backyard
for our row houses
was as wide as an ocean

sam and i ran it like pirates
foraging in people’s trash
for loose tin and rusted bolts
to make something out of nothing

she was plain with long, straight hair and big doll eyes

i didn’t know her any different
than the boys we hung around
except maybe a subtle softness
when we played with star wars men

sam wanted to know why i’d bitten
the hands off of all of my action figures
so that they couldn’t hold lightsabers and guns

but i couldn’t articulate
anxiety and fear back then

not the way that i notice it now

but i remember walking butler street with my grandmother
the summer sun setting down on another humid day in pittsburgh

there was a fair or festival on the football field
of a high school whose name time has forgotten

it seemed that everyone was there but me

and i didn’t mind, at least until sam and her friends
came running up to the fence calling my name

then i wanted to scale it like a man hungry for freedom

but i was staying with my grandma
and there was beer to buy
and lawrence welk to watch
tomorrow’s lotto numbers to calculate

so sam and i held on to both sides of that fence
like people separated by prisons or by war

and my grandma suddenly said, oh, oh, there she is, kid!
there’s your little girlfriend!

and it happened just like that

a wave of sexual and societal separations
that would bring sam and my days together to an eventual end

but for a second we just look at each other
doll eyes and red faces

then sam’s friends called her away

and the setting sun dipped behind a cloud
with no explanation for what had just happened

and then she let go of the fence.




i don’t stop
to consider middle age

but i stop to consider the photography
of william eggleston

while i look at pictures of louisiana gas stations
and grocery clerks pushing carts

unbeknownst to me somewhere in pittsburgh

my father is having a tube run up
from his groin to his heart
to freeze tissue that is causing it to beat too rapidly

while i look at hamburger signs
and discuss the juxtaposition
of old coca-cola iceboxes to lawn chairs with my wife

he is unconscious on a table
with a machine substituting for his heart

there is something tangible
in the work of william eggleston, i think

but i’ve never been able to grasp
the wonders of modern medicine

when i talk to him the next morning
my father says that he didn’t want
to ruin my birthday with surgery

i joke and tell him the day was already ruined with age

yet i feel like a child
because he kept that information from me

my father says, how does it feel to be middle aged?

and i stop to consider
how my knees always hurt now

and that everyone on the street
always looks younger or older than me
no one ever looks my age these days

i tell him that aging is a terrible trick played on all of us

never considering the advantages
that 44 has over 67

my father laughs and gets off the phone with a cough

and i stop to consider
the photograph by william eggleston
screen saved on my work computer

as work people run around me doing work things
in an office that could one day make me an old man

it is a photograph of the shadow of a drink
consumed long ago on a plane ride long forgotten

it is a very good photograph
it is art made at its simplest

i think that it might look like life.



fried chicken and waffles

we’re early enough that
there isn’t a line to get in here
around noon, i’m told,
one usually snakes
around this crumbling block
a mix of black people and white hipsters
old r&b classics from my youth
play on the bartender’s iPhone
and that is happiness enough
maybe not as good as the peach lemonade
that we are drinking on the first warm spring day
but it settles the stomach
from another evening of vodka and wine
the girls next to us play on their phones
instead of having conversation
but sometimes talk is over-rated
we aren’t speaking either
but not because we’re angry
i worry that if i open my mouth
it’ll jut be words about my job
i talk about my job too much these days
it isn’t good for happiness and art
talking about work can be like talking about disease
or it’s improper in certain social situations
like when you’re sharing peach lemonade
and listening to r&b classics
it’s not right to ruin a warm spring day
on such banal trivialities
it’s better to talk about work in the rain
or when the dinner is burnt
you’re stuck in traffic with the radio out
certainly not in moments like now
when the waitress sets down two plates
of fried chicken and waffles
and you look up at me wide-eyed and smiling
and both of our bellies rumble in unison
to the song of a thing that is so good
that you simply must dig in.



John Grochalski is the author of The Noose Doesn’t Get Any Looser After You Punch Out (Six Gallery Press 2008), Glass City (Low Ghost Press, 2010), In The Year of Everything Dying (Camel Saloon, 2012), Starting with the Last Name Grochalski (Coleridge Street Books, 2014), and the forthcoming The Philosophers’ Ship (WineDrunk Press, 2018) He is also the author of the novels, The Librarian (Six Gallery Press 2013), and Wine Clerk (Six Gallery Press 2016).  Grochalski currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where the garbage can smell like roses if you wish on it hard enough.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, July 4, 2018 - 11:20