Conversations with Richard Ballou, the Artist in the Livingroom
His art is displayed above the couch I sleep on,
between the two windows to the front lawn.
There's one in the hall;
a self-portrait in the surreal style.
The self of the portrait walked through the front door
on three legs. Two bone,
covered in skin and hair inlayed with blue veins;
the third mahogany,
stained deep with red an inlayed with gold leaf.
With every ounce of his eccentric strut retained from his youth
He marched on the dinning room
the same way he marched on Belgium in 1944;
(or was it the Ardennes Mountains in '45)
"Now you got me thinkin"
only a little slower
with steps just as sure
one leg, after another, after another.
We served him desert when he finally sat.
Ice cream and funfetti.
While we were finishing,
he reached out with arthritic fingers;
took his spoon like a brush;
and painted the rainbow dessert over his mono-color tongue.
When the candles went out,
and paper shrapnel lay over the family table,
he shot his latest photographic piece:
'Lovers in Woolen Caps'
(or maybe 'Birthday Shared with Hats')
"Now you got me thinkin"
He placed his prized disposable camera in his protective pocket
- this, at least, kept us near his heart.
In the remaining minutes with us,
he revisited Paris and re-earned his Master's of Brush Strokes
through a questionable painting still up for debate.
By way of the Eiffel Tower, he met Lady Liberty;
who met his belated return with a subtle wink,
while maintaining her graceful ignorance.
- as best a 21 year old in an 87 year old body can -
hopped into his mental time machine
and brought us back to kindergarten
(or was it high school)
"Now you got me thinkin"
Once we returned from the days of sweethearts
and Christmas plays,
reality set in and his departure was concrete and no longer abstract.
- The story was still incomplete,
but then again so was his painting next to the mantel -
(at least it was to us)
Now he got me thinkin'
- One day I'll see his gallery,
hidden at home amongst knick-knacks and
bric-a-brac. It's curator a tabby cat
who knows how to
let art speak for the artist
and tail speak for the cat. -
"Thank you for Being here Grampy"
was all the words a poet could say
to this artist of coffee table fame.
His fedora found its way upon his gray head.
He winked, while keeping his graceful ignorance,
and coined the phrase of which the poet dreams:
I Wanna Whole Lotta Love
A worthwhile experience; May 19th, 1973.
It is, and yet shall ever be.
Page and Plant; Bonham, Jones
--those cats had a connection!
With each other, with the audience
--by which I mean us, even though I wasn’t there
the first time this date rolled around,
smoking cannabis in the Texas heat,
wildly in love with the girl next to me,
strawberry blonde Jessica,
come all the way from California with flowers
in her hair and on her arms. She tasted
of spearmint when we kissed.
The forces of the universe brought her here,
to me and us and Zeppelin,
strange mystic things which cannot be explained
but are related to herbs and hormones.
There is like magic in the blues, too. Deep power
that. Old, primal, and rhythmic—too strong for melody.
We danced the Misty Mountain Hop,
which is over the hills and far away
in Kashmir or New Jersey
--empires of myth and dream--
that are intimately universal.
The song remains the same, man.
Can you dig it?
Dancing, twirling, and thrusting together,
bound in the universe by a bassline
the drips down in golden links from the throne of Zeus,
slowly descending. one. note. at. a. time.
we are left torpid and torpedoed; dazed
and confused for so long it’s not true.
She is nameless because she is 1973,
I am 2010,
in my dormroom
with an iPod.
It ain’t nuthin.
Author’s note: Every story has a beginnin, middle and an end, thats what these people have been tellin me. They says you have to have a problem, or a conflict, thats the fancy word, but I ain’t never been one for fancy words. But anyways, that don’t matter none, I’lls listen to what theys say.
It ain’t nuthin but just something that happens to everybody. It ain’t nuthin.
I was stockin’ apples in the shop they had me up in. You know when you’re in the supermarket and you grab the bottom piece of a pyramid of fruit and it all makes that awful rolling and thuddin sound like you can hear each piece o’ fruit bounce off the floor. Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you’re one of the people that come out from their aisles to see what stupid folk picked the wrong piece of fruit off the pyramid that everybody knows you’re not supposed to pick. But that don’t matter. Well anyways, I was stocking apples in that shop when I picked the bottom piece of fruit and they all thudded down. Well this man, well, I only call him a man cus he had two arms and legs, but I’d learned what a man is since being out and he ain’t no real man. Well anyways, that don’t matter neither to my story. This man, he saw me bending down to pick up them thudded apples and instead of helping me pick them up like I knowed anybody else would’ve, he just looked up and down at my backside and said, “Damn. That’s good.” And I just have to shake it off and I just tells myself that it ain’t nothin’ but just something that happens to everybody. It ain’t nuthin.
Today the lady with the glasses asked us to member something from before. For lunch we had something with a spice that theys say is from whichever place they put dots on their forehead, I cain’t
‘member the name. But the spice made me think of home and whiles it hurt real bad, it was a thought I didn’t want to stop thinking,
Mama was inside cookin. It smelled real good. I was outside makin sure all the hens was in their pen for the night but hens are stupid little things so it was takin me awhile. Pap wasn’t home from workin yet. Jefferson, who was only nine but thought he was twelve, was in the yard making the dog spin in circles chasing its tail. Alice was still a baby and was sitting on the grass, which would have made Mama real mad cus she had just done the washin, but that don’t matter much. But every time Jefferson made the dog fall over on itself Alice would laugh so hard she’d fall back over on herself and there the three of them was, Jefferson spinnin in circles and the dog and Alice having a time falling over themselves. And right as I was lookin over at Jefferson, Pap walked in to the house and for some reason he was happy. He walked up to Mama and told her something that make her eyes all bright and give him a long hug like she had something to hug him for. I don’t ‘member if I thought this then, but I’m thinkin it now, but seeing all the huggin and laughin and spinnin just made me want to fall in on myself out of pure joy that theys my family and this my life.
One girl been keeping marks on the wall, she says it’s been two months. But I don’t know what to think about that because what if you forget one day and even then there are somedays when I don’t see the sun, so hows am I supposed to know when that day had started and Lord knows that for us the days don’t end.
Her name is Sarai, the girl whos been scratchin in the wall. Her room is next to mine. We came in about the same time seeing how she still had the face of a new girl when they started me. I didn’t know that that was what a new girl looked like when I first came but that’s prolly cus my face looked just the same. Now we’ll see it on other girls every now and then, but it ‘ventully goes away. Anyways, that don’t matter none, well, at least to them. Sarai and I became friends pretty quickly seein how it’s mighty hard to talk to other girls cus they don’t want no one getting’ pretty ideas or going outside too much. That’s the worst part. Not going outside. Even if we do, theys watchin us. Everything else wouldn’t seem as bad if theys just let us go outside every now and then. But it ain’t nuthin’.
Someone got out yesterday. I heard thems yellin when they realized she’d gone. I was mad because I was trying to sleep and had finally gotten my mind to shut up which takes a while because sometimes the only way I can sleep is if I think of pictures of the baby or Mama or Papa or even Jefferson, even though he drove me crazy, but now I even miss those stupid little hens. But theys was hollerin cus she had gone and theys running up and down the halls and bustin doors and then other girls were screamin. I was alright until theys busted in my door and one man, I had seen him before, came rushing in my room hollerin askin if I seen her or she’d told me something and then he started rippin off my blanket and he just kept yellin at me. There ain’t many places to hide a soul in my room but I don’t think that’s what he was lookin for. But then theys went to Sarai’s room, hollerin and rippin blankets off of her, lookin for the same thing in her room. Well she just hollered right back about how she ain’t know nothing and theys need to just let her be, well then I heard a loud smack. Sarai stopped hollerin. Soon enough all the yellins stopped. And theys realized that she’d gone and they ain’t know how or where she went, but she’d gone. I didn’t hear nothing else for a while ‘cept Sarai crying softly in the next room. I don’t know if it was cus her lip hurt or cus she wished she was the girl who got out, but I was crying for the same reason.
“Kassie! Get yo sister and wash her up. I ain’t gunna have no baby of mine lookin like a mud puddle going to church tamarow.” Mama was yellin at me again, sometimes I forgot she could talk without being heard by anyone with ears.
“Kassie! Where you at?”
“Mama, you already told me to do the wash, so that’s what I’m out doing. Unless you want me to hang the baby on the line I donts know what you want.” But with the baby bouncin on her hip, Mama was already walking over. For half a second I thought she meant for me to scrub that baby down and flip her over the line, bare butt and all.
“Child, I knows you ain’t washin my white tablecloth in that water. Whats I tell you about washin that first, in the clean water? Now the waters been used, it won’t keep it white.”
“Mama why do you keeping mindin me about washin, ain’t I been washin all my life?”
“Hunny, as long as you keep livin, you’ll be washin every day of yo’ life.”
“Well then maybe I won’t wear no clothes.”
“Yes, and yous’ll be known as the naked woman. ‘Hey ‘errybody,’ theys’ll be sayin, ‘Come see that naked woman livin up in dem hills.’”
I thought about that for a good bit of time after Mama left. Washin the rest of my life ain’t seem like much of a time and being known for something even if it was as the naked lady up in the hills seemed better than being known for nothin.
My arms haven’t stopped hurting. Theys got bruises all over inside. I can’t get my hands to stay still neither. I don’t know how long I been in here. I tried to open the door, but it’s been locked from the outside. And ain’t no one seem to hear me. All the walls go up all the way, they ain’t no cracks. I ain’t got no windows neither and I can’t but think that if Papa had built this, he’d have built windows. Alls that’s in the room is a bucket in the corner and this bed that just sit there with sheets that look like theys been washed in dirty water. Mama was right.
Theys keep coming. I can’t cry neither or theys slap me. I just have to let them come. It ain’t nuthin. It ain’t nuthin. It ain’t nothing.
“She ain’t goin. Whats wrong with her stayin and workins here?” Mama was screaming at Papa again.
“We ain’t got food, that’s whats wrong.” He threw the empty bucket on the ground and it bounced with an empty hollow sound. “He told me it was a real nice job. Theys’ll treat her like a lady ‘n she wants to go.”
Papa’s friend told him about a job in town that would pay me to sit at a desk and be all nice as people walked in. I had said that I can say “hello” just as good as anybody else so why can’t I go and be the one sayin hello. Mama didn’t like the idea and she ain’t shuttin up about it.
I can hear yelling downstairs and theys yellin all sorts of words. I am shaking my door, but it ain’t movin’.
“Kassie! Kassie! Can you see anything?” Sarai is yellin at me, I can hear her shakin her door.
Through the crack in the bottom of my door I see footsteps running down the hall to get downstairs or to get out through the roof. But everybody is just yellin and I can’t tell what is happening cus I can’t make one voice from another and theys new voices I ain’t ever heard before. Girls are starting to scream. I can hear them out of their rooms and I am banging, shakin, my door. Sarai’s door just opened. “Sarai! Sarai! Sarai!” I keep screaming and bangin with all the might that I am.
“Kassie! Kassie! We’s a goin! Kassie!” Sarai kept just yellin my name and I can hear her weeping, she’s cryin, “Kassie! Kassie!”
Someone is banging on my door now. They’s hittin something on my door and yellin to get back. But I can’t. I ain’t doin nuthin but standin still in front of my door staring at it with my arms at my side. My door flung open. A man is rushing in. I’m being lifted and I am starin at the broken ceiling and now it’s the sky and I’m lookin past nothing into the moon.
I’s been at this center for two months now and we ain’t need no scratchins on the wall neither. When I first came I thought this place was the cleanest thing I’ve ever seen. Like Mama’s white tablecloth after it’s been washed in the cleanest water we got. I still have nightmares in my dreams; theys keep comin and comin and never stop. I see Mama’s face, but I see a bearded stranger just as much. But it ain’t nuthin. It ain’t nuthin but just something that happens to everybody.
I sat before a judge today and he was in a big booth like they show in the movies only this one looks a lot bigger cus I’m sittin right in front of it. They asked me how long I was stolen, I said I ain’t got an idea. Theys asked me if I knew where I was and I still ain’t got nothing to say. They asked if I knew any names, but only Sarai ever asked me my name. But I wanted them to think I wanted to help, which I did. So I said I could remember their faces.
So they brought out a man.
And he sat in a booth across from me.
That man. That man right there, Judge.
And theys all stood up and said guilty and he walked out hunched over and shackled.
But I never did go to no trial did I. There warn’t no Judge or no jury or lawyer to hear my case. I just left and came over here to this center and this is where I is, spilling apples and ringin up people’s womanly products and condoms that they shamed theys even buying. I know that shame, the shame of buying. I know that shame reals well.
The Other Side of The Mountain
The apartment on Corbin Avenue was always too loud
With a dusty record of Evie, scratched and spinning
Into the sunshine of that old record player.
Mommy was in the kitchen clanging the dishes.
And Jonathan, with his blue plush football,
Sprinted around the couch as I chased him.
Hannah sat silently on the couch, two dolls in her lap,
In the midst the loud laughs
And little yells of our day to days.
I helped break the Ramen noodles
Into the boiling water for dinner
and Hannah shook the little packet of flavoring
As I leaned over the steaming stove
And watched the noodles soften and separate.
Me and Jonathan crunched the cockroaches
On the kitchen floor in the darkness each night,
Listening the others scratch across the floor for cover.
Each time we got in our little blue Buick,
The Grand ‘89 sputtered and started
Screeching all the way up Corbin’s Hill,
Which seemed like a mountain to me.
I'd lean forward, looking past the windshield,
Trying to see that much further
‘Til we reached the other side of the mountain . . .