Jeremy used to burn his sister’s Barbie dolls
on his mother’s rusty yellow stove.
He’d sit them two at a time
in semi-sexual positions
on the big back burner,
and silently watch
as hairspray and lighter
made a blue and orange torch.
Their fancy dresses unfolded in the flames first.
Then the soft blond hair caught fire—
shriveled up in one smelly singe.
But when the plastic skin started to bubble,
and the tiny breasts popped
like two short-fused fireworks
the smell was unbearable.
And the god awful sight of the whole mess
dripping beneath the burner’s rusty rings
was enough for me to excuse myself.
Time for lunch I’d tell him,
not knowing then that my remark
could have been the funny punch-line
to the whole devilish event.
Once home I’d make He-Man
make slow, sweet love to She-Ra—
mostly kissing and grinding at awkward angles.
I was no angel.
There is a warehouse in California
filled with Barney imposter costumes.
A friend mentions this haphazardly
on the way to the haunted house
a week before Halloween.
I imagine thousands hung in rows
on the edges of massive metal hooks—
their purple bulks swaying silently
beneath transparent plastic sheets.
I imagine them as one inanimate mass
hung just above a damp, dark floor.
I imagine them as slabs of raw meat
cut from creatures which only exist
in Bizzaro world, which only exists
in the parallel cartoon universe of kids.
Then I imagine the reality of a hunter
of Barney wannabes quietly discerning
the slight imperfections of imposters
in the dusty basement of Toys R’ Us.
And I imagine an imposter putting on
a sweaty purple suit for the last time
before he’s finally caught in costume
at a birthday party for a kid who likely
won’t remember this rather weird event.
Before I know it we’re paying to park
under the overpass. The nearby levee
stands silent as the distance of stars
that carrousel above the Mississippi.
Barely visible in the late October dark,
the long necks of bulldozers and cranes
stretch out across the empty river-walk
like purple dinosaurs, searching the water
for what washed away their lost souls.
Entering the haunted house I imagine
the birthday kid wearing a monster mask.
He learns how to make it stay on tight
and how to breathe through the holes.
Just saying, sometimes when I’m reading I’m at a bar.
Let’s say I’m in the lobby bar
at the Peabody hotel in Little Rock, AR.
Let’s say this is the last stop of a long trip
across murky rivers of silence.
Let’s say I feel that way because
I’ve just read a line about upturned boats
while having a mint julep
with not nearly enough bourbon.
Let’s say I need to pee when a woman,
say about 35, slides up to the stool beside me
and asks where the restroom is.
Let’s say I receive a long text message
from the friend I’m there to meet.
Let’s say he’s the new sous chef
at the fancy hotel restaurant,
but his text message says,
let’s say, that the restaurant he works at
is actually in the hotel across the street.
Let’s say I wonder about how I’ll validate
the valet, and note the fact that I’ve forgotten
everything I’d just read for four pages.
Let’s say I have no idea where I am
as if I remember every word.
Let’s say I’m drowning under an upturned
boat in the middle of the Mississippi
while you’re reading this on the glassy banks.
But you say, no, I’m alive and well,
sitting comfortably in a hotel lobby bar,
breathing in the manufactured air
and that I need to pee.
No one has ever seen inside this orange.
Before being shipped to some produce market
on the borders of Baton Rouge, before the phrase,
Valencia variety adapted for Florida use
was ever uttered, orange groves
filled a farmer’s fever dreams
one winter night near the end.
Before even the seedling and the soft soil,
someone’s young daughter drew a picture
of her father holding an orange in one hand
and hers in the other.
Before the mulch and compost.
Before the shovel and the garden hose.
Before the branches and the sun and the moon.
Before the harvest and its hot breath
and the blood circulating through beaten earth,
kids climbed orange trees and cats climbed orange trees
and so much has happened in the world until now
when picked from a Cabotin’s vendor tray
stuffed with brown bags of unsalted popcorn
and more oranges, my girlfriend
dressed in gypsy rags for a play she’s in,
tosses me an orange across a hallway,
where I have waited on her to curve
around the corner for twenty minutes.
I pat my pockets to jingle some change
as she instructed me to do
before she left two hours earlier
to rehearse for opening night.
It is her job to rile up the crowd
of confused students and silent parents
who frown over eyeglasses at orange programs
to find familiar names.
When I ask her how much, she tosses it off
as she tosses over the orange,
and I imagine a constant grove growing
out of her fingertips.
I’ll put it on your credit, she says.
Seeing the orange tossed toward me,
its skin glistening under the electric light
of the modest theater hall, the awkward roundness
of its body spinning through the air
like the tiny planet of illusion
orbiting the space between our real lives,
I know the fruit hidden within is a bright light
no one has ever seen.
I imagine sharp knives growing from my fingers
to carve out the tender flesh.
It is so delicious I want to tear open my girlfriend
when no one is looking, eat a small segment
of her insides, and her fear
of anything whatsoever,
while I whisper little orange lies in her ear.
The Apartment Pool at Six
There was another one only rumored by the bad kids
telling half-spun stories of fights,
some boy named Sam or Nick nearly drowned,
or nights black enough to hop the wrought iron fence
and kiss girls smack-dab on the mouth
with eyes closed tight as gates.
The pool by our apartment was way at the back.
Girls slick with lotion had so much tanned skin
I decided the sun must have smelt of peach-perfumed oils.
Summer days I played sailor in shallow water
until tip-toeing along the ledge I felt the depths of boredom
and sunk to the chalky bottom
where I would eventually cut my foot at least ten times,
pushing off that rusty drain at the last possible moment.
Once my mother grounded me from the pool
for coming home after dark drenched and dizzy
from swimming all day without eating a thing.
I waited at the fence, watching for a week straight.
This is when I had the first nightmares I remember.
Once asleep I was alone in the pool.
A purple dusk hung above the deep end
where I floated naked, my skin like raked-over dirt.
Then a shark busted through the concrete side
and splashed all the water out in one wave.
It seemed that his being lost made it so he couldn’t stop
trying to bite my legs off, but they dangled just out of reach
in the drained concave skeleton of what was the shallow end
before he came. His dull eyes never wavered until I woke
choking on my pillow, biting a fish printed on the fabric.
I never told my mother about my bad dreams;
I believe boys never tell their mothers much at all.
But I find it strange that I never said that, when wide awake,
I cut my stomach open on the pool’s pointy fence. It bled out
as if ripped apart by tiny shark teeth, but I’d peeked over at girls
sunbathing in bikinis, their warm bodies close as the sun
saying something small about the dream of the world.
Christopher Shipman's work has most recently appeared in Big Bridge, Carolina Quarterly, Chiron Review, Cimarron Review, Exquisite Corpse, and Salt Hill. His poem, “From All the Purple Deer” was featured on Verse Daily and his review of Andrei Codrescu’s Jealous Witness appeared in American Book Review.