“The Steaptopygous Poetry of a Bad Winter Day”
by Kelly Jameson
An old man walked along the sidewalk, hunched into the cold like a small iceberg. It was a few days before Christmas.
His thoughts on that day could’ve been about anything. If one had to guess what his thoughts were based on the state of his dress and his thin, tilting frame that bespoke quietly of a lifetime of defeat and humiliation, you might guess he was thinking about how cold it was, about where his life had gone, melting away now to almost nothing, like snow dripping off the crunched-together row homes, the domiciles forced together, leaning into a march of poverty and dark secrets.
At any rate, regardless of what his thoughts were, he did not know they were to be his last. For all we know, he was thinking about how fucking cold it was.
Three male youths, two gangly and one rounded and crimped like a pie crust, walked behind him, laughing and talking, filled to their toes with their youth and with something else—the callousness of youth and a healthy disinterest in consequences. They, as I said, were just youths. Even though it was dead winter, they were talking about baseball.
“I want to play for the Cleveland Steamers,” the portly one said. He moved his arms in imitation of swinging an invisible bat. “I can hit the ball into next week.”
One of the gangly youths, who sported a dark mustache and would be driving in another month, said, “You can’t hit worth a shit, you fat fuck. I’ve seen you try to play. Who the hell are the Cleveland Steamers anyway?”
“Triple A team, man. My step dad told me about them. Said I should try out. I’ll start there, but they’ll see how great I am, and I won’t be there long before they move my ass up to the pro team.” This from a boy who, at age 10, briefly had a compulsion to eat dirt, chalk, rubber bands, glass shards, and the occasional matchstick. Behavior that the psychiatric community did not consider normal by any means. He quickly learned that what goes in must come out, the average human being having about thirty feet of tubes connecting the mouth to the anus, and that eating things that weren’t meant to be eaten could perforate one’s bowel or cause kidney damage and stuff like that, so the compulsion had to stop. Since age two, Portly Youth had daily been demonstrating a lack of dopamine, a chemical that controls the glide, trickle, and stream of impulses inside the brain.
The other gangly youth said, “Does Cleveland even have a Triple A team? Do they have a pro team?”
The other two gave him looks. “The Cleveland Indians? How do you not know about the Cleveland Indians?”
“Who gives a shit? I don’t really care about baseball,” he said. “It’s boring.”
The old man, wearing shabby loafers on his feet that looked more like slippers, didn’t care about baseball either. His socks were sodden because he couldn’t afford boots and was basically wearing slippers in one of the worst snowstorms of the winter. His pants were brown and old too, and he wore a flapping, dark coat that hung oddly on one shoulder. The shoulder was thin and bony and poked higher into the snowy sky than his other shoulder, kind of like a lopsided church steeple.
He wore red mittens that covered his hands and the sticks of his fingers but the mittens had holes in them. His left thumb poked through his mitten and he kept raising it to his mouth and blowing on it, trying to warm it. Maybe his wife of forty-two years had knitted those mittens for him long ago.
Despite the frigid temperatures, he wore no hat on his balding, snow-capped head. Blue veins at his temples throbbed against the cold. He was just an old, old man walking along an inner city street, minding his own old business.
One of the youths, the gangly, dark-haired boy, spotted a whale-sized piece of snow, crusted over with salt and gravel. It attracted him like a diamond, sparkly yet charcoaled with car exhaust. The gangly youth was strong for his age. “Watch this,” he said, the eyes of his two compatriots drawn to the chunk of ice. How many disastrous outcomes have been preceded by those two words?
The gangly youth bent down, lifted the ice chunk, and threw it into the air. Really, he’d only meant for it to swim in the sky for a little while, come down, and land near the old man. When he threw it, it disappeared for a moment, high into the swirling snowstorm in the air, and when it reappeared, it landed with all the heft and weight of a runaway train on the old man’s bald head.
Stunned but still upright, the old man’s whole body trembled. He raised his hands to his head and rubbed it. Tears sprouted from his rheumatic eyes. “Who did that?” For the span of about ten seconds, it seemed like physics took a break.
The portly youth yelled, “It was a Puerto Rican! He ran down that alley!” For dramatic effect, he pointed. To an alley.
The youth beside him, who happened to be Puerto Rican, said, “Oh man, why it always gotta be a Puerto Rican?”
The three youths quickly stomped down a different alleyway, two of them having already forgotten about the old man. But one of them, the one who’d hefted the chunk of ice thoughtlessly in the air, would not forget…for a very, very long time.
Ten Years Later
The gangly youth who’d thrown the chunk of ice that landed smack on top of that old man’s head was now a young man. He sat in his downtown Cleveland law office, thinking of that moment, as he had many times over the past ten years.
An office radiator made loud, clunk-clunk noises and the snow fell thick and hard. He watched the flakes swirl, dive, and clutch the air outside his window. He’d become a lawyer. He’d lost touch with those two friends long ago. He’d clipped the newspaper article about the old man who’d mysteriously died of head trauma on that ice-covered street and he’d kept it all these years. It was yellowed with age now, the edges crumpled and somewhat torn. He read it often, although by now he had all the details memorized. He’d killed that man in a senseless act of stupidity.
Despite all the pro bono cases he took and won, despite all the desperate people he helped, he couldn’t erase that one terrible act. It played over and over in his mind, like a bad sports replay on ESPN. He was older now, ugly in his thoughts. Everything was ugly. This city, this job, the people on the streets and in the hallways and on the coughing trains. The sky was ugly. His shoes were ugly. He opened his ugly desk drawer and took out the ugly yellowed newspaper article, caressing it. I’m sorry Carl Bananuer, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that chunk of ice would land on your stupid head and kill you!
He’d been thinking about what to do about it for a long time. Every little thing he did now, from brushing his teeth to peeling a hard-boiled egg to bringing in the mail seemed to take three days, like time and space drew each act out, like his life was just stretching into a fucking chord of misery.
He didn’t know who he was anymore. It was like he’d disappeared down a rabbit hole, like in that children’s book Alice in Wonderland.
He smiled briefly at one part of the memory. His fat friend had wanted to play for the Cleveland Steamers. That was some next level bullshit. He didn’t realize, and his friend hadn’t realized, that his friend’s step dad had pulled a fast one. A Cleveland Steamer is a sexual act, when one person craps on another person’s chest and then sits down in it and rocks back and forth like a steam roller. He’d googled the Cleveland Steamers one day and then had laughed so hard that tears streamed down his face.
It was also known as a Brown Shower. Which brought his thoughts back, unfortunately, to that brown-black chunk of ice that had ended Carl Bananeur’s life.
Resolutely, he put the newspaper article away, his desk drawer swallowing it with its dark mouth. He’d decided. It was time to confess. He knew that Carl’s wife was still alive, living in a nursing home not far from where he now worked. Her name was Doris. She was seventy-seven now. Maybe he could start living again if he unburdened himself. Even if he did start living again, he mused, Cleveland would still be ugly as hell.
As the young man sat in the small, ill-lit nursing home cafeteria, eating grilled cheese and chocolate pudding with Doris Bananeur, he marveled at how sharp her mind was for her age.
“Who are you again?” she said, scraping the last of the pudding from her dish. “Thanks for buying me lunch, by the way. It’s not going to get me in the sack, if that’s what you were thinking.”
His mouth gaped and she laughed. “Can’t you tell when a geriatric fuck is joking?”
He was speechless for another moment and then he felt it was alright to laugh. He was back to frowning soon enough. “I’m here because I sort of had a connection with your deceased husband.”
“Oh?” she said. “You know I used to write poetry about inner city Cleveland? What a putz. It was a natural thing to do if you lived in this shithole most of your life, as I did, something to try to raise my self-esteem and conquer painful bouts of intrepid shyness. I was such an idiot. My muse was stinky, wind-blown trash, poverty, hunger, and slush-filled, traffic-congested streets where hate floated in the air like discordant church hymns. Did you know I authored three volumes of that shit? They were called “Steaptopygous Red,” “Bent Penis and Frozen Lipstick Meet,” and “Myself, You, Myself, and Myself: I Press My Breasts in the Face of History.”
“Congratulations I guess?” the man said.
“You know this shithole is hailed as the ‘Comeback City’?”
“We can be proud of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, at least,” he said, stupidly.
“You know this sack-of-shit city is named after Moses Cleveland? In 1796, he oversaw the plan for what would become the modern downtown area before returning home and he never came back. He was the smart one.”
“A lot of famous people are buried in the historic Lake View Cemetery,” he said. “President James A. Garfield and John D. Rockefeller.”
“Sure,” she said. “My brother is buried there, too. He died in a mysterious boating accident. He was on the lake with my husband when it happened.”
She looked around and frowned. “I wish I had a cigarette. Do you have any?”
“I don’t smoke.”
Her fingers danced on the table top. “We also had the Hough Riots in 1966 and the Glenville Shootout in 1968, and in 1978, Cleveland became the first major American city to default on federal loans since the Great Depression. I need more pudding.”
“I’ll get it for you,” he said, thinking, it’s the least I can do since I killed your husband ten years ago. He got the pudding and came back, setting it down in front of her. There were barely living beings sitting all around them, their round, scrunched faces and hollowed-out souls greyed and slow, reminding him of that painting The Scream.
“Thanks for the extra pudding. It still won’t get me in the sack.”
He smiled. Then he said, “Suburbanization did change this city in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. There was that fire in 1969 on the Cuyahoga River. And then there are the city’s struggling professional sports teams. Cleveland is called ‘The Mistake on the Lake.’”
“The Indians,” she said, shaking her head. “They reached the World Series only to lose to the Florida Marlins. Christ! They haven’t won the series since 1948.”
“People say this is a cursed sports city,” he said. “No major professional sports team has won a trophy since 1964.”
The young man thought of his fat friend and the Cleveland Steamers and it brought a smile to his lips. But it quickly disappeared as he pulled the newspaper article from his wallet, unfolded it, and set it on the table. “Doris,” he began.
Her aged hand reached out and picked up the article.
“Do you remember this newspaper article about your husband’s death?”
She sighed. “When I was a young, attractive woman, I dreamed of being a Rockette. In fact, I auditioned in New York City. It was April. But while I was dancing in front of a panel of judges—I was doing a required move, a double pirouette and a leg extension—I tripped and twisted my ankle. What kind of a putz twists their ankle auditioning for the Rockettes? You couldn’t just be good. You had to be great at ballet, tap, and jazz, and you only had thirty seconds to prove it to the judges. Everyone was in the same boat. We were all nervous but trying not to act like it. Like life, you just put on a smile and move through it.
“So I didn’t make the cut and I came back here. Worked in a paint store and did some secretarial work. I met Carl in the paint store. I wrote poetry. I danced through my words. I played tennis and I was quite good. I used to be able to stretch into poses I didn’t know were humanly possible. However, apparently, I’m a pretty bad dancer.
“Sometimes, now, it’s like I don’t remember who I was. My mind, it’s like a lamp with a frayed cord. The cord is taped with duct tape, so sometimes the lamp work and sometimes it doesn’t.”
She paused, having put the newspaper article down, her fingers high-kicking around it. “But oh yes, I remember that day.”
The young man swallowed the thump in his throat. “I killed him. I came to say I’m sorry. I was young and stupid and just fooling around. I threw a chunk of ice into the air. I only meant for it to land near him. I don’t even know why I did it. I found out you were still alive and living here and I had to come and see you. I had to tell you.”
She smiled wide and slow, reached across the table, and in the pool of wan cafeteria light, gripped his hand warmly. “Of course I’m still alive. Why wouldn’t I be?”
She looked at him and her eyes, bright blue, seemed much younger than her seventy-seven years. “It’s time for my confession. I’d been waiting years for that bastard to keel over and die.”
“What?” he said.
She stood up. “Wait here for a moment. I need to get something.”
“Aren’t you going to call the police?” he said.
“I need to show you something.”
While he waited for her to return, he got himself another cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie with a misshapen scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of it.
He tried to imagine a youthful Doris stretching into poses that were almost humanly impossible. It made him think about this Stretch Armstrong figure he had as a kid. The action figure was modeled in the shape of a short, muscular blonde man. He wore a pair of trunks. He could be stretched from his original size of 15 inches to four or five feet. If a tear developed, his Mom stuck an adhesive bandage over it. His Stretch Armstrong had Band-Aids all the fuck all over his plastic body. Stretch Armstrong was made of latex rubber and filled with gelled corn syrup.
How many times could a man be stretched to the breaking point? It seemed a fitting thing to think about as he’d just confessed to a murder, and while he waited for Doris to return, possibly bearing security-guard thugs from the nursing home and police officers in her wake, time seemed to stretch and blur.
The young man knew he’d never been normal. Sometimes when he woke up he thought his hands were a different size than they’d been the night before. Sometimes the scratched linoleum floor in his kitchen seemed like it was made up of Quaker Oat Squares. And sometimes he “lost” little blocks of time and his wide-slot toaster seemed bigger than his ToyotaPrius and he wanted to drive his toaster around the city. But where would he park it?
Doris returned, by herself, still in her pink dressing gown and slippers. She carried some books in her hands and she set them on the table. Then she sat down.
She opened one of the picture books. “These are pictures of me and Carl,” she said. “Younger days.”
In one of the pictures, Doris and Carl stood before a Christmas tree that was overburdened with decorations. Doris was not smiling. In the background, dozens of prettily wrapped gifts littered the base of the tree. “That picture was taken shortly after I found out that Carl was having an affair with a young redhead he’d hired at the paint store. We’d only been married a year. Something about redheads. Men can’t resist them. I used to be a redhead. Anyway, I confronted him and he beat me. You can’t see the bruises because I covered them with makeup and two layers of clothing. He had lots of affairs while he continued to ignore me. He was a nasty piece of bulging, psoriatic flesh. Kind of like an inner ear infection that never went away.”
The young man looked at the photo, and the festive tree standing tall behind the slouching couple—with its tinsel and blinking lights and round, absurd balls of color—seemed far too bright.
“My brother, the one who drowned, I’d gotten up my courage to leave Carl and I was going to move in with my brother for a while, until I got back on my feet. After he died though, I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t leave Carl. I should have, though. I should have found a way. The police investigated the suspicious drowning, but Carl was never charged. There were no witnesses except for Carl. But my brother was an expert boatman. In my heart, I know my brother was murdered.”
She touched another photo. “This is me in the hospital. Carl sitting solicitously by my bedside. Getting me coffee. Propping my pillow. Oh, he was so caring, wasn’t he? Meanwhile he’s fucking one of the nurses in a supply closet. And he’s the one who put me in the hospital. He punched me in the head. Wasn’t the first time either. I burnt the pot roast. That’s why he hit me. Because I burnt the pot roast. I was a Cleveland hater married to a wife beater.”
The young man didn’t know what to say.
“These are my shitty books of poetry.” She took a sip of her tea. “You did me a favor that day. Still, you did commit murder whether you intended to or not. So, as penance, I want you to promise me you’ll read my steaptopygous poetry. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.”
“My whole terrible life is in those books. You thought William McGonagall was the worst poet of the English language? Wait ‘til you read my shit.”
“I promise I’ll read them.”
“And then, after you’ve read them, I want you to bury them in a backyard somewhere. Or better yet, throw them into Lake Erie. Don’t burn them, that’s not good enough.”
She looked out the windows of the cafeteria. “It’s snowing again.” Then, “You know, this city isn’t all bad. We have the most snowball fights in the country, Blackout Stout beer, and A Christmas Story was filmed here. Ralphie’s house from the movie is still here with the Major Award Leg Lamp in the window.”
“Let’s not forget Clevelanders’ love of grilled cheese,” he said.
“You know you look a little like Steve Buscemi? What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a lawyer, a legal aid advocate.”
She nodded and he wasn’t sure what that meant. Approval? Disapproval? Disinterest?
“Cleveland has some weird laws,” he said. “Women are forbidden from wearing patent leather shoes, lest men see reflections of their underwear. And it’s illegal to catch mice without a hunting license.”
“I should think men wouldn’t mind seeing their underwear reflected in a woman’s patent leather shoes,” Doris said, dunking another tea bag into her cup.
The young man smiled. “Doris, you’re not who I thought you’d be.”
“We never are,” she said. “We never are who we should be.”
He made his way home, moving like a small whale through a city of snow humps and bad professional sports teams, and all that night he sat by the hearth with its roaring fire and drank Blackout Stout beer and read Doris Bananeur’s horrible poetry.