Volume 10: Bathhouse Betty

Bath House Betty by Matthew Terhune

Tuesday, March 20, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Winner of the 2011 Coal Hill Chapbook Prize

1987

There was always one girl who got too drunk
in Lisa’s backyard that summer, face down
on the cement lawn that circled the pool
like the gravelly mineral clasp
around a bead of turquoise on a necklace,
mumbling a whiskeyed rasp to “Brown Sugar”
shaking the speakers’ black cabinets.
It was usually Dorothy, the plain, lanky lifeguard
from Port Chester with the 1920s name
who’d lean over the old 70s bar on the patio,
swell of white formica striped with mirrored strips,
that glittered under the bars of light
falling through the arbor’s grey slats.
She’d shoot Jim Beam with the male counselors,
sway through the ocean of teens
in her white t-shirt with the red cross
slashed across her freshman breasts
and slide into the water’s clear glass.
Once, she got so loaded, a group of guys tied her
to the weeping willow in the front yard
with a garden hose, thick green ribbons
lashed around her waist.
She held a beer bottle in one hand
that sloshed and frothed over its amber neck
as she pumped her fist and slurred the words
to “Pour Some Sugar on Me,”
tossing her sun-washed hair and pouting
her blistered lips like the girls who made it
backstage at metal shows. She was never attractive,
even in the soft, rippling light of the pool
that made her skin appear electric, the beanpole
of her body arcing over the rim
to gather leaves in a long black net, clear the dark
plugs of cigarette butts clotted in the filter’s blue mouth.
I never saw her again after that summer
but thought of her the first time I got so high
I couldn’t stand, the first time a man pinned me
to the abyss of the bed
after a throat full of bourbon.
I finally understood
why she abandoned her body, gave it up
like an offering, pennants of smoke
from the altar, like someone who’s shot a flare
from a boat going under, its pink fire blossoming
in the garden of the night.

MARYANN IN AUTUMN
for Armistead Maupin

I’d like to die if heaven is San Francisco,
if it’s 1976, Halloween.
I’d sit under the whitewashed stairs
sharing a hash brownie with Mrs. Madrigal
in her jade and crimson kimono
and watch the queens roll by dressed as nuns,
the bay light sculpting their bodies’ shadows
on a row of old Victorians stacked on Russian Hill,
flashing off the dulled silver
of their blurred skates. I’d find Maryann from Ohio,
dressed in a khaki skirt and sensible shoes
and tell her I loved her,
that we’d both have our hearts broken by men.
In this eternal city, I wouldn’t get sick
from the baths, die the hard death in my twenties.
I’d keep coming home late from the disco
with sweat rolling down my arms, glitter in my hair.
She’d come home later, drunk
on the body of another man.
We’d sink into the couch and watch Cavett
until the screen went white with electric snow,
not oblivion but the end of something,
a shot at capturing the hum, the hollow in the earth
made by the living.

BATHHOUSE BETTY
for Bette Midler

On a good night, Barry would sit
behind the piano’s black barge
wearing nothing but a towel,
tucked and knotted on the side
into a white blossom,
the hedge of his brown hair
blunted into a soft shag.
You’d pace in front of the drum kit
acting bawdy, brave, at home
on the small stage by the pool
where garlands of steam
appeared and vanished
over the rush and patter
of the waterfall you hated
emptying into the water’s blue flash.
You channeled Barth, Tucker,
Mabley as the tendrils of your frizzed
red hair struck and shimmered
like the flames of a gas lamp
over that old blues voice
rinsed with sand and honey.
In the early days,
you were just as scared
as the legions of men
cruising the long hallways,
heavy with the scent of pot and poppers,
after they stripped down to nothing,
their striped and paisley shirts capped
with butterfly collars, velour v-necks
that plunged between pecs, platform shoes
braided with suede tumbling together
in lockers, their beaded limbs
stretched along tiled banquettes,
the quick bliss of simple cots,
waiting for the doors to close,
for the globes of light, moons
that rose against the starred ceiling,
to go down.

MR. RIORDAN

I saw you that summer,
in the club by the plastics plant
under I-87, where the dance floor throbbed
below the throttle of cars
on the road to New York City,
the bass from the DJ booth
thumping the room, filled with sweat
and glistening chests
like a common heart,
behind the blackened windows,
past the bar
wrecked with half-empty bottles,
the glassy skins of cigarette packs,
your face under the strobe’s light,
shifting palette of green, violet,
aquamarine, as if you were a swimmer
in a carnival at sea.
I was a junior in college,
hating myself.
I sat at the bar and smoked, lifting shots
of Wild Turkey between drags, watched
the young stripper descend the stairs,
glowing like crushed jewels.
He was no more than 19, decked
in black chaps and biker boots.
You sat back with a beer in one hand
and took him onto your hips,
your legs flexed across the dark floor
as a crowd gathered, hooting as though
they were at the Seventh Veil on Sunset,
watching a leggy blonde straddle a trucker.
I disappeared into the pack of men on the patio
before you could turn around, get caught
by your old student in the bathroom,
another man on his knees.
I wanted to remember you
standing at the front of the classroom
in your dress pants and your blue oxford
in the fall of ’88, waxing poetic about the Reformation,
picturing Ann Boleyn’s pretty head
under Henry’s royal arm.
I didn’t think about you for years
until my mother whispered the news
into the phone one night.
You’d lapsed into a coma
after a cocktail of coke and GHB,
your brain numbed under a web of seizures,
strokes, a heart attack.
You didn’t go down like some of your friends
into the dungeon of slow decay
but you left your body for the last time,
passed it over
to a machine that funnels breath
into the dead engines of your lungs,
bathes your organs in blood,
to a team of nurses who don’t know
where you’ve been, how hard it was
to show up here alive.

CASTRO

He leans into the ruined doorframe
of The Edge on 18th Street,
where the disco ball still turns dreamily
over the worn parquet floors, casting
its glass snow on walls postered
with 70s porn. Drenched in drugstore cologne
under the gauze of sulphur and smoke,
he blazes in the early morning
like a wig on fire, takes a long drag,
and the bandaged light fills the hollows
of his gold cheeks like a swatch of sequin
from an old queen’s gown. Men saunter by,
touring the lush gardens of youth. A muscle boy
in a “Nobody Knows I’m Gay” t-shirt blurs past
on rollerblades, his wheels sending bits of grit
and gravel into galaxies of mist. A pack of twinks
cruises toward Powell, toward the hammered iron
of trolley rails that spiral into fog’s country of ghosts,
ferrying whispers into the safe harbors of each other’s ears.
He isn’t waiting for the past to stroll up
like an old lover, swallowing him in his arms.
He stands there as if he’s still twenty-two,
his body chiseled into monument form,
dressed only in what’s tried to break him,
lovers devoured by death, blood
that tunes itself each day to a viral chant.
He does not shine, exactly, but wears
the benediction of endurance, verdigris
of everything that has fallen away.

PAST LIFE

I put it in the boat, which swayed
through the yard’s green sea.
Oars clipped roses, gone blue now

under the starred light. I was afraid
of what I’d left behind, what might follow.
I was left with nothing: swallow of water

in the bough, the neighbor’s dog rolling
in the moon’s creamed bowl. There was a voice,
a man sending black ribbons up like flares.

I passed the bed of impatiens, petals whirling
in a ghostly current. This is what happens
when a road becomes a song, when the ground

gives up a river. We lose our taste for maps,
the spine of the compass driving us home.
There is only the anarchy

of leaving, night’s libretto called
from the diva’s throat, songs
we never learned and can’t stop singing.

PARADISE

When I think of love, I think of girl groups
from the sixties, the jangle and rasp
of the bruise put to lyric, the boyfriend

who will never come back, the three-part
harmony that returns him to the world.
When I left, the earth migrated.

I could not touch ground, not from ecstasy
or the unlikely homecoming to the deserted
self, but the unmooring from that blue life.

I flew to Dublin in search of a stage.
I wanted a troupe of drag queens
with brogues and stubble rinsed with rouge

to make light of what had been lost.
Rory would be Ronnie, kohl-ring and gravel-
throat chased with honey. Declan

would be Etta in a blonde beehive and white
heels, hollering under the spotlight.
I read How the Irish Saved Civilization

on the plane and counted my excuses, things
that were never enough: fingers of gin,
the body’s torch, the furious pull

of the moon. Perception had become a tune,
a hymn that required repetition. I said to the Irish,
sing me out of it, the bar song thrown

to the rafters, the wolves, who could make
a whole of the bits. I swallowed hymns
of whiskey, Dublin dusk, the bodies of men

gone pale in the island’s winter.
In a man’s bedroom one morning
I saw an old black and white photograph

of The Ronettes hanging on the wall
and heard the snare’s rattle and crack,
the splinter of the castanet, that all-American wail.

And I wondered if his parents fumbled
over each other’s mouths to breathe
in the back of a Chevy under windows

steamed with breath, if his mother rat-teased her hair
beneath the blow dryer’s dull storm, ground
cigarettes tipped with coral gloss into the stone street,

if on a morning, somewhere on a boulevard
white with daylight in Clare or Kilkee,
they lost their fair-haired to a bullet

in the back of a limousine,
myth in powder pink suit
crawling from the backseat.

_____

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