excerpts from PAINTING THE DOG

Summer with Peas

It's hot
and the ice picks come out
with the rock salt. 
too poor to drive cars
sit on their steps and crank

homemade peach ice cream.
They talk about watermelon pickle,
how's that foot healing? when's
the packinghouse taking on more help?

It's hot.
Along the irrigation ditch
small burrowing owls soak up
the sounds of late afternoon
and sharpen their talons.

Near dusk
the kids peel to their skivvies
and wade in. Later they'll gig for frogs.
The owls tuck back in their dark
cool holes and wait for the leavings.

It's too hot
to think or coil up the green hose
blistering in the dirt. Crickets
have choked the window fan. Still,
the new couple next door

is at it again; their lovemaking
rocks the trailer. We screw
our rabbit ears back and forth
to clear the Channel 10 snow;

turn the sound down to listen
to the heat, to the land rich with mice
and owls; listen for breezes to swipe
through pea fields wobbly with seed.
To cool us.
Spillway, 1998


It leaned too far
and the tin roof was mostly gone to rust,
good for picture taking, nothing practical—

the barn my grandfather’s father built in 1887
with the Schaffer boys and a team of mules.
A fine piece of work in its day,

hammered together with the black iron nails
he forged himself, clear lodgepole pine,
logged and hand-milled right here on the ranch.

It leaned so far
last summer we pulled it down; two hours
of ‘dozer work—would’ve taken less

if we hadn’t stood around admiring everything:
the buck rake and one-horse bailing machine,
long handled hay forks still stacked

against the wall, hand forge and anvil,
the big round steel saw blade,
rusted out like everything else. I sorted out

the best planks, the ones where the saw-whip
was silver edged and swirled
across the grain. Even Montana winters

don’t eat lumber like that. Dad set some aside
for fence mending; stashed the leftover boards
in the garage rafters—forgot about them

till the roof sagged last winter.
That’s when we had our family talk
about the barn wood.

We decided to make coffins;
one for each member of the family—
no sense waiting till the last minute.

Mom took our measurements,
my son Harry made up a jig and ripped
out the lumber on the table saw. Naturally,

Dad wanted a classic shape,
no squared-off casket nonsense.
And quality hardware.

Snow was heavy
most of the winter. Soon as the ground
thawed I stacked the four coffins

in the back of the tractor shed—
unassembled, parts numbered.
But Dad keeps asking,

“Who’ll put the last coffin together?”
I guess the Schaffers will give us a hand
— if anyone’s left by then.
Punished for Painting the Dog Blue

Fusty cobwebs, damp
moldering mops and rags;
I've grown used to the cellar.

The gas furnace glows
lika a dragon's mouth.
At first I was scared,

till the squeaks of the mice grew
familiar. Now I listen because
they know the way outside.

I don't miss the light much now.
My eyes have grown so pale
dreams leak through the centers

and twirl in the dark.
The old granite laundry sink drips
like a water clock.

When I get of of here,
I'll buy a new bike.
And some ice cream.

I won't share 
with anyone, especially you

Two a.m. and still awake. He gets up again
to take a leak. Third time. Down the hall

the sulfur night light in the bathroom glows
like a warning. He thinks of Hieronymus Bosch,
the orange sheen of asses in a Lake of Fire.
"pretty soon it'll be my ass," he mutters.

A convertible glides down the street, its top
luxuriously open to the night. And faint music,
tender music he recognizes but can't name,
drifts in through the open bathroom window...

congas, Latin trumpet... the memory of a party,
drinking and sweating in the humid night,
swaying on a balcony against a woman
wearing Shalimar, her hand gliding luxuriously

between his legs. What was her name?

He stands in front of the toilet, straining
to catch more of the melody. It's gone now.
The night's deserted. Lawn sprinklers kick on
and beat against the grape-stake fence.

"Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,"

he whispers to the porcelain bowl, swaying
with his eyes closed. Holding himself.
Echo 631, 1997