Americana Stories: Poetry

Animals—by Diane Pohl

Conversation with my sister

I spoke with dad today and he said he might go swimming this afternoon also. 

He said he wants to see the animals underwater.

He said he was swimming the other day also, which is kind of true 
because I take his swim trunks with me to the beach in my swim bag. 

I told him H has been doing a lot of diving lately and he said for H to be careful to not hit his head. 
I told him dad it’s not that kind of diving but H said it’s actually a risk so he was not far-off.

Yesterday we found another one of the guitars- this one’s called a Penco—it’s oversized- 
dreadnought style 1970’s—still so deep and resonant-sounding even though a little bit damaged 
from that heat in the attic.

H said he would take it to a luthier.

I got sad because the case has a small hole in it, which dad had repaired with a bespoke spot 
of duct tape.

~

Diane Pohl’s recent poems have appeared in The Lake, Slipstream, Nixes Mate Review, The Bookends Review, Ovunque Siamo, and are forthcoming in The Main Street Rag, I-70 Review, and other places. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there are books along the sidewalks and always people to talk to. Her poem, “When you were 9,” won an Allen Ginsberg Award.

Americana Stories: Poetry

LL BEAN BOOTS, NAVY SURPLUS PANTS,

HAIR TO MY WAIST—by Nancy L. Meyer

On Apple Valley’s long dirt road,
our geodesic dome, painted electric-blue.
We bought a beat-up hearse for a camper,
then bedded it with straw for our goose
after the fox killed his mate. Thought we hid
the pot plants between our corn stalks;
their spiky green canopied two feet taller.
Homemade root beer exploded in the pantry;
pink and blue fungus tentacled out of the root cellar.
I went to India for 6 weeks, leaving Mel
to wrestle our 4-year-old into his snowsuit
down the hill to the school bus, yellow beacon
in waist high snow. Long-haired friend, back
from Nepal, lived with us that winter, barefoot.
We built a teepee for a peyote meeting,
fed the fire, drummed and sang through the night—
first time I believed in god. Under a full moon
we rode the motorcycle, headlights off.
Startled the heifers by lying in their meadow
to look at the stars. They circled close,
black nostrils snuffing and blowing. Our heads
buzzed in the clover.

~

Nancy L. Meyer

Nancy L. Meyer, she/her, is a 2020 Pushcart nominee, avid cyclist, and grandmother of five from San Francisco. The journals where her poetry has appeared are Black Moon Poetry, New Note, Outcast, Gyroscope, BeZine, Book of Matches, Laurel Review, Colorado Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and Sugar House Review, among others. Her work was also included in eight anthologies, including by Tupelo Press, Ageless Authors, and Wising Up Press. She has work forthcoming in International Human Rights Arts Festival, DeColonial Passage, Kind of a Hurricane Press, and Frost Meadow.

Americana Stories: Poetry

Biblical Erotica—by Daniel Edward Moore

Mountain men are clear about

bearded Gods and bullies, how

introductions can break like stone

covered in commandments.

I, for one, prefer the edge of razors,

as the wilderness ends

in every mirror framed

with spiders blushing.

He said, the bed, burned like salt

in the wounds of sleep

where dreaming is the prophet’s way

of drooling like a river.

I washed his face the way a mother

fills a mouth with milk.

Silver clouds crossed our eyes,

blue with contemplation.

~

Daniel Edward Moore lives in Washington on Whidbey Island. His work is forthcoming in I-70 Review, Tar River Poetry Journal, Ponder Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Texas Review Press, South Florida Poetry Journal, and Bryant Literary Review. His book Waxing the Dents is from Brick Road Poetry Press.

Americana Stories: Poetry

I Almost Got to New York Once—by Ioana Cosma


Was on Broadway and all, and my play was gonna be produced,
and I was going to waltz into New York as if I was Elliott Smith
on Waltz no. 2. Or a supernova woman on the first moon.

Instead, I stayed, as the Killers would say,
in this two-star town ruminating on ideas and rhum,
I unfolded my flapper wings and sat quiet in my room.

New York seemed tremendous like a Rilke angel,
a terrible combination of irony and dream,
a comedy of terrors in the making.

But it wasn’t fear that stopped me,
it was a certain reluctance in crossing the forgetful ocean
it was complacency and the fact that it was too good an idea.

I almost got to New York once,
my play was there on the stage of Broadway,
but I heard the voices from the underground here calling out to me.
No, it wasn’t fear.

~

Ioana Cosma is a writer and lecturer from Romania. Her sixth volume of poetry is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in May, and her first novel will appear in Romania in July. Her play, The Men from the Mechanical Age, will be part of the JCTC Theater Festival in New Jersey. She writes poetry, short stories, novels, and plays.

Americana Stories: Fiction

Coming Home—by Thomas Johnson

Miller went back to the bar after his discharge from the Army. Going home excited him with memories of his friends sitting around a table filled with pitchers of beer. He enlisted in the Army two years after he graduated the university and he did not return until his hitch ended. His friends were still there at the old bar when he showed up to ask for a job.

Bartending would be easy. All Miller would have to do is take orders and pour beer. Students arrived for lunch and again after class, with lulls in between. Miller wrote down their orders and handed out their drinks. It didn’t require much.

Going without work was impossible for Miller. Unemployment drove him to the Army, and he’d be damned to go without a paycheck again. He knew he could count on the old bar when he moved back home—the same remodeled gas station since the Seventies, staffed by the same old bartenders, and serving the same old regulars. The Clash shot a music video there once, but only the long-timers remembered. All the time between his studies, his years without work, and his years in the Army seemed distant, and now, telling someone he graduated with how he ended up as their bartender became Miller’s only fear. He didn’t want to explain how things got this way. He was supposed to be a journalist, or anything, really, but not a bartender. The war had been on so long by now that no one cared to ask what he’d done in the Army. All the things he thought would make him cool and interesting did not matter and he felt separated from the people he knew and the students he served.

In the Army, Miller had been somebody. He held rank because of his degrees, and after his enlistment ended, he’d hoped to get the professional job he’d always wanted. When employers interviewed Miller, though, they would always ask him about the military. He grew tired of trying to convince people he wasn’t just another veteran, but all anyone saw was a soldier. It was the opposite of his time in the Army, where he was often singled out. He sang to himself to pass the time. The sergeants started calling him “radio” and would signal him to sing for the platoon during long training exercises in the field. Everyone he met along the way said he didn’t belong in the Army. He didn’t mind. He never intended to make a career of the service. And now that he was out, he was ready to work, just like he had been ready to serve. But no one would let him. He hadn’t realized he would never get to leave. 

After only a couple months working the bar, Miller got a job in advertising. He was excited. He would write copy for clients. The office sat on a hill overlooking a parking lot, and he could see the city’s skyline. There at a cheap desk he sat day after day writing things that would appear on many social media channels. Come by to receive a free car wash with any purchase. It wasn’t exciting but he didn’t mind. Any time the office took a phone call from a client, the manager yelled. That he minded. The yelling wasn’t necessary. It was easy to write new copy. It didn’t require yelling and he didn’t like the way his team conducted business. When people clicked a homepage or a website, account executives raised the rates charged to clients. But their clients never reported increased business. It felt like lying. Miller returned home each day exhausted but didn’t know why. It wasn’t hard work and he didn’t like that he made the same money tending bar doing something he didn’t enjoy. It didn’t make sense.

One weekend, Miller’s manager demanded he log in from home and work. Miller didn’t want to. He realized he didn’t have to, either. He didn’t have to do anything. It was a new feeling. He took a long walk that night. The next day he put in his notice and returned to the bar.

He took on the worst shifts in the schedule. Summer came and the students went away, leaving the bar empty most days. The bartenders started drinking on the clock to pass time. The owner gave them reduced prices and they kept their own tabs. Miller did not hear of any new jobs and started hanging around the bar before and after his shifts. He noticed that nothing had been dusted above eye level, not beer bottles or the television cables or even the ceiling fans, and sheets of grey dust covered everything. There was a leak in the cooler room that caused water to pool up in the corner. It looked like every piece of equipment needed replacing. No one cared. The staff kept putting drinks on their tab. It was money they’d never see.

The bartenders themselves were all different sorts and came here from all manner of misfortune. Occasionally someone would ask Miller what he was doing there. He didn’t want to lie but he didn’t know what the truth was anymore. No one ever knew how they ended up here, exactly. One day a cook named Smith called him into the kitchen.

“You see this here?” said Smith. Smith pointed to the grill. “All I have to do here is throw down frozen burger patties on a flat top.”

“We’re a burger joint,” said Miller.

“Burgers ain’t cooking,” Smith cried. “I’m supposed to be a cook.”

“You take another job and tell them you cooked filets here,” said Miller. “No one has to know.”

“I’ll never tell anyone I was here,” Smith said.

The months wore on. The dining area in the bar had library shelves built into the walls. Miller took up reading on the clock. He noticed the books never moved from their places on the shelves. Miller started writing notes on order tickets like Staff Pick! Order up a thick serving of Faulkner with your fries! and left them tacked on the shelf. If the books were taken, it made Miller feel  good. He worked the nights when the bar held an open mic. An old friend from college named Hobbs hosted the event using his own equipment, moving a couple tables out of the way to set up a single amplifier. Time had separated Miller and Hobbs, but it was nice to see an old face once a week. The rest of the performers were always the same people playing the same songs on guitar. Miller didn’t mind. They were very supportive as a group and it seemed like the world hadn’t gotten to them. It felt like they really cared. At the end of each open mic, the whole gang would get on stage and take turns singing “The Weight.” Miller thought about joining them but never did.

Hobbs asked Miller one day, “Why’d you leave advertising?”

“So much worry about all the wrong things,” Miller said.

“Man, but it’s something,” said Hobbs.

“Whatever amounts to anything?” replied Miller.

“You can’t be a bartender forever,” said Hobbs. Miller did not answer. Hobbs went on, saying, “I mean, you were doing so many good things. Man, I would never have had the courage to join the Army, regardless of the reason or the time, and like, you did it. You were over there, you were doing good things, even if just for yourself. And you’ll do good things again. Just need to have a direction, you know.”

“Like these guys just playing guitar here?” Miller said.

Hobbs looked away. Miller could tell his feelings were hurt.

Miller said, “Look, I didn’t mean that, that way. I guess playing guitar at a bar once a week is better than not playing guitar. It just doesn’t seem like right now anything will make any difference for me either way.”

“Little by little,” said Hobbs, “you can make a big difference. If you believe in it.”

“I don’t know if I believe in anything anymore,” said Hobbs.

More time passed and the bar started to see a lot of turnover. The cooks eventually found jobs downtown doing real cooking. Miller volunteered to take up shifts in the kitchen. He wanted to help and it didn’t require much learning. The kitchen was built into a closeted space in the middle of the old building—space for only two people with a flat-top, a roll toaster, two cold serving tables, and hot oven. Someone years before had left behind an old stereo that could still be heard through the walls even with years of grease covering the speakers. Miller played his favorite music, and loud. He learned where the food was stored and how to heat it properly. With practice, he got the timing down, estimating how much frozen food to thaw before the evening started, how many patties the grill could hold at once and how to handle the deep fryer with one hand, all while shredding lettuce or slicing onions. He took extra care with orders if there weren’t many at once. On certain nights of the week, he might get overwhelmed. A large group would show unannounced and twenty orders would drop at once. Miller would stand dripping over the flat top, sweat soaking into his bandana, taking large gulps from the foam cups of water he stashed on the shelves before each shift. He learned that in the Army. He’d cook and cook and cook and eventually it would slow and then end. He didn’t mind. He learned how to clean with as little effort as possible, and how to start shutting down before closing time, so there was little reason to hang around.

~

That fall, there was an election. The country would be deciding the next president and people talked about it day and night at the bar. It would be the third executive in charge of the same war Miller had fought in, and chances were that a woman could be elected. There was nothing else so captivating in the whole country. Miller tried not to get caught up in it. He would vote, of course, if it meant things would be slightly better one way or the other. Much of the country had been divided on the war, though, and the regulars thought they could ask him for his opinions. Every time he made his rounds to bus the glasses and pitchers, he’d have to hear it.

“Where do you stand?” Dansby asked.

Miller gathered empty pitchers as a group of old men looked up from the table in the middle of the patio. 

“Behind the bar.” 

“On the election, jackass.”

“All I can do is try not to make life more difficult for anyone,” he said.

The old men chimed like birds in a row. “Lots of ways to go about doing that,” said one, Bradford.

“But everyone all at once,” Miller said.

Dansby, said, “You’re going to have to take a seat.” Dansby slid out a chair from the table for Miller to sit. Spilled beer and crumpled napkins littered the tabletop, but none of the men sitting there cared. Miller took a cigarette from one of the packs and lit it with a lighter taken from the tabletop. 

“I’m just a bartender,” he said.

Bradford sat up. “Only because you can’t find the work you want.” Looking at the entire table, he said, “We just can’t do that to our veterans.”

“Can’t expect one president to change all that,” said Miller.

“Sure, you can,” said Dansby.

Miller knew what they wanted to hear, but he didn’t want to lie. “Nothing’s ever changed that much over the years.”

“I can’t see any better reason for an election,” said someone else.

Miller looked around the table at the old faces. The regulars were pouring fresh glasses and setting into conversations again. He didn’t know how to explain himself to these men. People like these still thought that certain things could change, and certain things mattered. But Miller knew better, now, and didn’t see how an election would bring back his friends. He went quiet and wanted to leave the table. But Dansby wouldn’t let him go easily.

“There’s got to be something you believe in,” Dansby asked.

“Sure,” said Miller. “But it can’t be solved by a single election.”

“Hard thing coming from a soldier,” the whole table seemed to say at once.

“Right when I get here from the Army I meet Garrett,” Miller said.

“I’ve known that guy for twenty years,” said Dansby. “Half the reason I still drink here every day.”

“And wasn’t it his brother had to come and take him back home to Ohio?” asked Miller. “Just like come and rip him away?”

“He needed to be around family,” said Bradford.

“Garrett lived one mile straight up this road in a garage apartment and for thirty years he’d ride down here on the bus, cook hamburgers, and drink his weight in beer, with just enough money left to pay his rent.”

“Everyone has theirs,” said Dansby.

Miller snuffed the cigarette into an ashtray. “But his brother had to do for Garrett what Garrett couldn’t do for himself.”

~

The bar was packed the night of the election. There was an open mic still scheduled and when the singing was about to start, a winner still hadn’t been called in the election. The sun went down and the results rolled across the television screens, but nothing changed in either direction and the bar only got busier. People were excited. There appeared to be as much silence as there was chatter but Miller was too busy to talk. The stage had been readied for a performance that no one wanted to give. Miller hadn’t even noticed Hobbs setting it up. When he got a moment to step away, he pulled him aside.

“What’s going on?” Miller asked.

“Not much to sing about right now,” said Hobbs.

“Maybe things will change.” Miller didn’t know what he meant by that, but it felt like something to say. 

The election dragged on without a winner. It was usually apparent by now who would win, but nothing changed. People were still drinking and ordering food. The time came to close the kitchen, and Miller hadn’t cleaned a thing. He offered to keep the kitchen open an extra hour and started cleaning as best he could. In between walking pots to the sink, a new food order would come in. The pots piled up in the sink, but he’d return to the grill with a new order. Eventually, it stopped. The networks still hadn’t called a winner and it was midnight. The bar was still full. Students sat hanging their heads. It felt like things might get better, or a lot worse. Miller didn’t hear the commotion of people talking anymore. Everyone was sad. 

Miller found Hobbs outside. “Is the microphone on?” 

“Can be,” said Hobbs.

“I got one.”

Miller walked to the stage and stood at the microphone. Hobbs went for a guitar but Miller waved it off. He tapped the mic. No one at the bar so much as looked up. With a heavy breath, Miller closed his eyes and started singing. He knew all the words to this particular song by heart. He had listened to Sam Cooke after school because he thought it was important to know his songs, and when he first heard “A Change is Gonna Come,” he made the effort to memorize it. He always felt like it would be an important song for some moment to come along. As he got through the final chorus, he opened his eyes. No one had moved from their seats or even looked in his direction.

He felt embarrassed. He stepped away and walked back toward the bar. It was dark outside. He was carrying pots back to the kitchen when Hobbs found him.

“You’ve got to sing more often,” said Hobbs.

“Not so sure,” said Miller.

“I never would’ve picked you for a tenor,” said Hobbs.

Miller walked back into the kitchen. It needed sweeping and pots waited in the wash sink. He knew what it felt like to open the kitchen after the night cook had gotten too drunk to finish cleaning, and he knew how it made him feel to step into a mess that wasn’t his. Looking at the sink full of brown water, he plunged his hands in and started scrubbing. He wasn’t going to leave anything for the next guy to clean up. He had more respect than that.

~~~

Thomas Johnson lives in Washington, D.C., and attends the Master of Arts in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and later completed an enlistment in the United States Army.

Americana Stories: Poetry

Supermarket Sweep, 1994—Jeffrey Hecker   

Abundant and considerate, first starlight, so why on earth,

as Mom races to fill her cart with Tomahawk steaks and slips,

does no solitary bystander assist her oblique fractured patella?

Not host Mark Ruprecht’s wide neck tie.  Not shopping partner

Uncle Jerry, stuck in console at storefront.  Jerry can smell only

Millstone Coffee dispenser, hear countdown timer Johnny Gilbert

narrate over copyright infringed sped up Kraftwerk.  Nine cameras

continue rolling as Mom crawls epoxy floor.  Winning nametag Vicki

maneuvers around Mom’s body that eventually hugs some retractable stanchion.

Jeffrey Hecker is the author of Rumble Seat (San Francisco Bay Press), the chapbooks Hornbook (Horse Less Press), Instructions for the Orgy (Sunnyoutside Press), and Ark Aft (The Magnificent Field). Recent work appears in South Dakota Review. A fourth-generation Hawaiian-American, he teaches at The Muse Writers Center and reads for Quarterly West.

Americana Stories: Poetry

Walking Directions to Dunton’s General Store—Sara Epstein

From our house on Beaver Pond, walk past the Murdaughs’ house.

On the dirt road, kick the stones and watch the dust swirl.

Cattails rise from the edge of the pond behind the four identical cottages.

Next pass the Silvas, and then the fourth house.Can’t remember who lives there this year, it changes every year.

At the highway, you have to wait to cross Route 3.

Cars whip by, reminding you the road has a destination to Bar Harbor.

Run across, past the sign leading to the Mount Desert Island Biological

Laboratory, past Dahlgren Hall where there are lectures,

Past the town hall where there are dances,

Past the church you never go to,

Past the motel cottages all identical:

Edgewater cottages, Bay Meadow cottages-

You stayed here your first summer in Maine:

Your brother Mark dove from one bed to the other,

Yelling “Duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh,

Duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh Batman, through the window!”

Stop at the raspberry bushes,

Gobble down the sweet-tart berries,

Cross a small street to the cove,

Center of Salisbury Cove,

Dinghies and rocky beach smell like low tide.

Touch the rough eel grass,

Careful not to cut fingers with the sharp edges.

Pick up a piece of brown seaglass,

Rub it with your fingers as you put it in the pocket of your shorts.

Cross back over the street again,

Climb the three steps and open the screen door to Dunton’s.

Spend 35 cents on a brown paper bag you fill with penny candy:

Licorice and fireballs and rootbeer barrels and Bazooka bubble gum.

Skippy Dunton, the store owner and postmaster,

Takes your money, tells you: “It’s going tuh get windy latuh.”

You start back home.

Dr. Sara Epstein is a clinical psychologist who lives in Winchester, MA. Her first book of poetry, Bar of Rest, will be published by Kelsay Books in 2023. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Nixes Mate Review, Chest Journal, Plainsongs, and  Mockingheart Review. See more at saraepsteinwriter.com.

Americana Stories Web Feature: Poetry

Beyond—by Lou Turner

Lou Turner is a writer and musician (Lou Turner, Styrofoam Winos) in Nashville, TN. She is an M.F.A. candidate in poetry at Randolph College and the author of Shape Note Singing, her debut chapbook from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. Recent poems have appeared in Entropy, EcoTheo, HAD and elsewhere. Turner’s latest record Microcosmos is out now and featured in Pitchfork, NPR’s All Songs Considered, and Uncut Magazine.

Americana Stories Web Feature: Prose

Elliot’s Story—Fiction by S. Blair Jockers

Looking back, I realize I had a serious crush on Joe. People didn’t think that way in 1949, but I should have figured it out the day he told me he was leaving Pensacola as soon as his enlistment was up at the end of the year.

“I’m sick of the Navy,” he said. It was June, and we were eating grilled cheese sandwiches together in front of the PX. “I’m outta here, off to Montana, someplace like that.” 

I knew I would miss Joe but was afraid he might not miss me. I wanted him to stay, but for some confused reason, I didn’t understand then, thought it was better he was leaving.

We met at NAS Pensacola in February 1947, on the first day of my first job. We were punching out on the time clock at the base’s north gate, and when I told him I was a newbie, he immediately took me to a bar nearby for a welcome-to-the-nav beer. I was only eighteen and got carded, so ended up sipping a pop while Joe talked. He was raised in New Orleans, played shortstop on the all-city junior baseball team there, drafted in 1943, re-upped in 1945. The high point of his navy career was maintaining the aircraft that downed three hundred Japanese planes in the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” during the Battle of the Philippines in 1944. 

On his baseball-sized bicep, Joe had a tattoo of a Hellcat, the plane flown by The Blue Angels in aerial shows at parks and fairs, and wore a Bronze Star pinned to his uniform, the true sign of a genuine hero. When I asked if I could read the back, he turned the medal upside down and I leaned close to see: Awarded for Heroic or Meritorious Achievement. I smelled his Aqua Velva aftershave too, which was nice.

“What’s your story?” he asked. 

“From Apalachicola originally. Now I live with my mother in an old pile downtown. My father was killed at Dunkirk and I wanted to join up right after I graduated, but there were too many sailors still enlisted from the war, so I got a job on base instead.”

“I don’t mean that, Ace. I’m asking if you’ve ever been laid. You look like you just started shaving last week.”

“Shit yeah,” I said. 

Joe must have known I was fibbing, because he slapped my back and laughed one of his big old laughs, and from that moment on, we were friends. We went to movies at the Highway 90 Drive-In; drove around in his father’s 1939 Hudson while he bragged about his latest conquest of a horny, small-town girl, and I basked in his glow. I told him I was sick of “pussy soda pop,” so he got me a fake ID and we started going to bars in Pensacola Beach.

Sometimes I had strange feelings around him, like when he drove with his shirt off, one arm draped over the driver’s side door, and I found myself staring at his muscles and the tufts of hair in the middle of his chest. Or when he changed into his bathing suit behind the car door at the beach and my mind went totally blank at the sight of him naked. Or when he hugged me at the party my mother threw for my nineteenth birthday and my underwear tightened up.

I started figuring things out that night Joe told me was moving away. When he dropped me off at home, I slammed the car door and walked inside without saying goodbye. I ate the fried chicken and biscuits my mother left in the oven, and took a shower, then sat in my favorite chair in the parlor and drank a pop while I read the Pensacola Journal. Below the fold was a story about a federal government report that called homosexuality a mental illness and documented what the report called “sex perverts” being fired from jobs in Washington.

What if I do have feelings for him, I remember asking myself. That doesn’t make me a pervert. I chugged the pop, threw the paper in the trash, and went to bed.

After his enlistment was up, Joe didn’t move right away. He wanted to be a mechanic for one of the commercial airlines, but he was having trouble finding the right spot. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops surged over the border into South Korea, and the Korean War began. Joe was the only person I knew with a television, so I went over to his trailer to watch the news report. 

The reception was bad, so we sat on a porch he built off the side of his trailer. He opened a wooden ice box and pulled out a tall jar of Hurricanes, a rum and fruit juice drink from New Orleans. 

“How’s the job?” he asked. “You still on base?”

“Yeah, busy, with everything happening in Korea. They’ve been sending me to Point Magu out in California to set up a records system for training Seabees out there. Paperwork never ends…”

“I’d get sick of sitting at a desk all day.” 

“You get used to it, but I know what you mean. I’ve started back at that gym on base where we used to go in the afternoons. It breaks up the day.”

“And it shows, Ace. You used to be such a pencil.” Joe lifted his leg and touched his shoe against my thigh.

A gust of wind blew over from the creek as we passed the jar back and forth. Nuts falling from the pecan tree cracked like little bullets on the metal roof of a carport where Joe parked his new F100 pickup. 

“Nice truck.” I took another swallow from the jar, started to feel its effects, and handed it back. “Remember that old Hudson? You looked great in that car.” 

Joe smiled and we went back inside, but the news show was over, so we watched Joe’s favorite program instead—The Lone Ranger—about a cowboy in a mask and his young Indian companion, Tonto, fighting for law and order in the Old West.

“Big man and his friend, what about that?” Ray slurred and grinned. I was drunker than I had ever been in my life, but it must have occurred to me where this might go, where I probably wanted it to go. He had talked before about navy guys getting horny on long cruises and fooling around. During the second commercial, my head fell against his shoulder.

I woke up the next morning in Joe’s bed, both of us naked, my head resting on his chest. As the sky began to light, he woke up too, and we started talking—about his truck, his job search, his girlfriend, Tanya, and the new computer I used at my job–anything but what had just occurred. I loved feeling his chest rumble against my cheek as he spoke and eventually drifted back to sleep. 

An hour later, the blazing sun jolted me back to reality and I jumped from the bed like I’d been shot out of a gun. I pulled on my clothes and rushed out without saying goodbye. That was the last time I ever saw Joe.

After leaving his trailer, I spent the rest of the day locked in my room. Whenever I closed my eyes, I kept imagining the two of us together. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept pulling at myself, hating myself. At two a.m., I yanked an extension cord out of the wall and whipped my body, then threw it down on the floor. The cuts left permanent scars on my abdomen.

~

My job was planning and organizing training programs, and I decided what to do next in a way I was comfortable with. I made a list:

1.  Get as far away from Joe as possible, as soon as possible.

2.  Never walk or talk in a feminine way. 

3.  Avoid eye contact with men who look that way, so others won’t notice and make assumptions about me.

4.  Avoid handsome men who might make my mind wander.

5.  Avoid books and magazines with suggestive photographs and themes.

6.  Avoid places where men are likely to remove articles of clothing that might invite disturbing thoughts—gyms, beaches, parks, sporting events, construction sites.

7.  Find a girl and get married.

8.  Be vigilant, all the time, everywhere.

I met Piper at an Independence Day parade in downtown Pensacola and we got married the day after Thanksgiving. She was a secretary at Baptist Hospital and wanted a little house, a garden, kids; things I thought I could be proud of. I arranged a transfer to Whiting Field, a naval training facility in Milton, twenty-five miles from Pensacola, and Joe. 

We liked Milton. It was a smaller town, and quieter. The Blue Angels were based there, and on the wall of their hanger, unfortunately, was a giant image of their mascot plane, a Hellcat, the same image tattooed on Joe’s bicep. Walking by it every day, I remembered things that made me feel dirty and disgusting, a different species than the pilots, our heroes, who worked in that very building. Despite my best efforts, I was weak, didn’t always follow the plan. I bought physique magazines with pictures of oiled-up men in thongs with soft, welcoming eyes, and used them as a tool to find release. 

Around then, I read in Time magazine about a book that had just been published and was creating quite a stir. It was called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, and claimed over a third of American men had had a homosexual experience at some point in their lives. 

Seoul was captured in March of 1951, and the Chinese joined the war. Trained recruits were in great demand on the west coast, and I spent more and more time at Point Magu. Piper was pregnant by then and wanted to stay near her family in Pensacola, so we decided not to move, and I went back and forth on transport flights every other week.

Point Magu was an hour north of Los Angeles, and when Frank, another civilian employee on base there, invited me to share the driving one weekend, I was ready for a break and agreed. 

We checked into separate rooms in a hotel off Hollywood Boulevard, then Frank asked if I was up for an adventure, and I said sure, so we drove to a neighborhood between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles called Silver Lake.

Frank parked on Sunset Boulevard across from a bar called The Black Cat. The place was packed with men talking to each other over loud music; some with shirts partially unbuttoned, showing off muscles and hairy chests. The Black Cat was a homosexual bar, the first I had ever been to, and I felt like I was suddenly inhabiting a different planet. So many men, just like me! 

When a man in the drink line smiled and introduced himself to us, Frank winked at me and went to the other end of the bar. The man was dressed in a business suit with his collar unbuttoned—an accountant at one of the film studios. The thing I remember most, believe it or not, is the feeling of his lips brushing my ear as he stood close, his tailored beard touching my neck, hand in the small of my back. He had to go after a few minutes, so we kissed and he gave me his telephone number on a matchbook cover.

As Frank and I left, a young kid on the sidewalk out front handed me a flier from a group called The Mattachine Society. It described a legal case involving a local man, Dale Jennings, who had recently sued the police for entrapment, and won. 

“It was he-said, he-said,” the kid told me. “No other witnesses. This means we’re innocent until proven guilty, finally. Homo sex might not be legal, but it’s a lot harder to prosecute now, in California anyway.”

If the legal system acknowledged, even in a small way, that I wasn’t evil or disgusting or perverted, did that mean I was just a regular person, that I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of? It was exhilarating to consider, but as we walked to the car, I remembered what I was returning to, in Point Magu and also Pensacola, where Piper was waiting, pregnant with my child. When Frank and I got in the car, I sat in the driver’s seat, balling like some fool, pounding my head against the steering wheel until blood crept down my forehead.

Frank took me in his arms. I had made my first gay friend.

~

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed with a recognized border at the 38th parallel. The previous fall, when I returned to Pensacola on one of the transport flights, I told Piper the truth and she wasn’t surprised. “You light up like a bulb whenever you talk about Joe,” she said. And she’d found my magazines, too.

We divorced amicably. I arranged a permanent transfer to Point Magu and found a studio apartment in Ventura, the first time I’d lived alone. A couple of years later, I got a job at a computer company in Los Angeles and moved there. I regularly sent money to Piper for our daughter Misty, though Piper’s new husband forbade her from having any contact with me.

I dated men on and off over the years, but still felt dirty and disgusting, deep down, and my relationships never lasted very long. I  was lonely, hung out at bathhouses, and tested positive for HIV in 1984. I never got AIDS, unlike several of my friends who died that first year—usually alone. I was one of the lucky ones but often felt like I didn’t deserve to be. 

Then, in 1986, I met Arthur and my world turned around. “I didn’t give you a choice,” Arthur likes to say. “You were mine, and that was that.” I was over fifty then, but still had trouble thinking of myself as a real man, a man who was capable of happiness, so Arthur sent me to a therapist who said rules about who can do what with who are getting less strict, and people aren’t condemned for who they love so much anymore. 

That’s true, of course, even more now than it was back then. Young gay men these days have an easier time coming out than I did. There’s still a lot of shit up in my noggin that keeps me awake nights—how disappointed my mother was when she found out about me; the meanness I showed to boyfriends over the years, hating myself for wanting them; the bitterness and resentment that my career flattened out in my thirties when my bosses realized I wasn’t going the way of the straight and narrow. Misty died in a car accident a few months after graduating college in ‘72, so I never got a chance to meet my only child.

Even at my age, some days are better than others. 

But there’s always Arthur. Things are fine when it’s just the two of us in our little bungalow, him tending his garden out back and me playing with my beagle named—you guessed it—Joe.

Maybe someday we’ll all be a little more like Joe, a happy warrior who loved who he wanted to love and was loved right back.

~~~

Blair Jockers grew up in the South and loves to write about it. He was a finalist for the Allegra Johnson Prize at the UCLA Writers Program and earned an MFA at the University of California, Riverside. Blair lives with his husband in Palm Springs, California.

Americana Stories Web Features: Poetry

Skin Smooth—Laine Derr

Until her mother died,

she’d forgotten a thumb

calloused from killing –

an ant, hemolymph still warm.

an ant, even in death, fights.

an ant with boot cut jeans, sugar-coated throat.

Letting go: ashes sinking,

river stones longing for kind,

skin smooth from shining –

a body thinned with linseed oil.

a body eaten by shadows.

a body, ugliness is the beauty.

Born with a hole, her heart still misses its form.

The blackberry blossoms are late this year.

~~~

Laine Derr holds an MFA from Northern Arizona University and has published interviews with Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Ted Kooser, and Robert Pinsky. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming from Chapter House, ZYZZYVA, Portland Review, Oxford Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.