He Thinks He Knows Me by Rich Ives

  1. Some Stuff

This story is probably about you. It’s not the one where I’m the girlfriend. It’s the one where I wish I were the girlfriend. I lived beneath street level, windows with prison bars. I was like a stale sandwich wrapped in a bandana. I was carrying a too-heavy load of Biblical knowledge. I stumbled. Mary Tyler Moore down and out with a hangover.

We installed information retrieval systems in our toys, my girlfriendless friends and I. We were too capable of doing useless things, in the same way that there are too many dogs named Elvis.

I still listen for the telltale click of falling candy, the rise of my expectations barely higher than the sidewalk.

Here in the projects the election canvassers lift their naively optimistic heads only to greet urine raining from the upper floors. Not me, of course, I’m down here, but wealthier assholes who share my opinions.

This was at a time when I had decided the costume I lived in was no longer a costume. Tumultuous offerings of saintliness and redemption were spilling. Often I libraried my free time, which hung me out to street view with an armload of books like someone else’s laundry. Nevertheless I fed my body carefully. It accepted saving money virtuously by feeling unique about eating stale walnuts and kale. Visitors had “never eaten that before,” and they smiled and then left me alone.

Perhaps it’s imprecise to say intelligence alone cannot eliminate pain, but many seem satisfied with such efforts. The uncertain rest between the small traumas is actually the most traumatic.

I had a sectional orange arranged for eating when you arrived, but I didn’t eat it. I built a little apartment of groceries around it as the day went on. I knew I would eat it, but I liked not knowing when, and I liked the uncertainty with which you greeted my offer of joining me.

I attacked my worn denim and won. I was fashionable. A boyfriend climbed through the enlarged ragged holes. Who am I? I wondered. Was my no ever considered a bit yessy?


  1. Some More Stuff

This story reeks of youth, but I’m not as young as you might think. No one is these days. We hold on to our innocence because we’re not given very much of it. We don’t want to shed it like our parents, who were stuffed with it like dumplings or delightful little sliced pepper lunches that weren’t very satisfying and looked way too proper.

I have a kind word for everyone, but I do not always speak them. I’m still not into hot water, but I keep turning the burner on. I do wonder if my earrings float, will I be easier to find.

Are you doing anything important?

I am now.

I want you to do this for me. I want you to enjoy it.

So I did, but not the way he meant.

My life remains a series of thens.

Always something after and still coming and never anything now.


  1. Sewing Lessons

She broke open the needle and out came a bird.

She broke open the needle and out came a donkey.

She broke open the needle and out came the handle of a bank account.

She broke open the needle and out came the gopher of her childhood.

She broke open the needle and out came the toast she had burnt so carefully.

She broke open the needle and out came the delicate handkerchief that was really torn underwear.

She broke open the needle and out came the swamp that had been missing for forty-seven years. She moved in.

She broke open the needle and out came the needle.


  1. Preference Menu

Gangrene prefers to be read to.

Syphilis likes to play cards but won’t gamble.

Malaria drinks too much but pays for everything.

Cholera infects everyone with stolen love letters.

The river invited them all and got carried away. What was left invited more friends.

I’m going to study nursing so I can take care of myself.


  1. Twirly Things Because I Love More Twirly Things

Ribbons attached themselves to unfolding kisses (we called this flirting). It was hot out, so I let that get into me.

If I was a purist then, it was held within a thin white suit, lark-like, a bereavement.

So then there was a boyfriend. Finally. One snout no longer benched.


  1. Look I Made a Statue of the River

So Zebulon the Boyfriend went to the graveyard to reflect upon its meaning. It was midnight, and the dead were shouting. The moon seemed to be listening, but you can’t tell just by looking if the moon is sleeping. Zebulon said, “The ground was open, and I stepped inside. I wasn’t a real man down there. I tried to step further in, but my thoughts were not deep enough. Someone else was in the hole. He was the only one who could sing beautiful songs when it was raining. When he told me his name was Later, it scared me.”

The dead man was lying, of course, and Zebulon was not Zebulon’s name either, but we shall call him that to make you think there is something elevated and fantastic about the story he lives in.

There inside the grave.

Where he is dead.

He really is dead.

Later I mean. Not Now because Now is annoyingly alive.

“I tried loving that other man I had been,” said Zebulon, “but I didn’t know him well enough before he was dead.” By the time the former Zebulon grew scared, Zebulon’s mother’s calls had already fallen into the canyon, and they appeared to have a grand red earth fever.

Zebulon’s mother, of course, still contained the real Zebulon.

One of Zebulon’s mother’s calls asked, Is this the story where two snakes are tied to the ends of a rope and cannot agree which way to go? The phone crackled mysteriously on the dead man’s end of the line.

No, this is not the end of the world, said the snake, who had two intentions and had unearthed a confusing migratory Latin in which to say things that Zebulon understood anyway because he was merely projecting.

As if metaphors could unearth layers of history and confuse them with their own meanings because history is dead too.

The dead can be more confused than the living, and Zebulon’s dead. They really are all dead, all the Zebulons.

So the dead Zebulons had gone to the graveyard to reflect upon their meaning. It was midnight, and the rest of the dead weren’t shouting anymore. The moon still seemed to be listening. There are things you can learn from the moon. That’s one meaning you can find still living in reflection.


  1. Dog Clock

The Zebulon who wanted to be a boyfriend had the bearing of a professor who couldn’t decide what to teach. Tidiness with a mulchy undertone.

Pugnacious prat that he was, he blued his oilskin bag, that professor. Leveled on a skip he was, like it was his bed all the way at home. Took a tablet and a powder. Felt quaint. Stepped out of the movie only briefly.

Sour towels and sooted shirts.

A dog clock circling the point of how much time was left.


  1. Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music

When you don’t need a tool, the tool sings and remains a tool. If you listen while touching it, the tool teaches you to hold it in all the different ways you can feel about the tool. Do not be confused. The tool does not love you, but the tool allows you to give yourself to the tool. It’s like a marriage without the food or the sleep.

Here’s Zebulon putting on a hat he had carried folded in his pocket.

Can I not arrive at my head without a wrinkle?

Are we dancing the wrong boyfriend polka? The one that does not arrive at the beginning?

Am I not a bugbear of Austrian descent, a hank of?

Do I not arrange burnt orange hibiscus blossoms in her rusty brown hair?

Does not each of these entertainments needs a tiara for the excess I pour?

Zebulon asked himself about himself with the wrong music.


  1. A Graveyard Registry Made from Scraps of Rain Sinks into the Earth’s Subconscious

I believe I know someone who is still living. I should not say that I believe someone knows me or believes I am still living, for my opinion may be of little or no consequence to their opinion.

I don’t really want to go everywhere, but the places I don’t want to go don’t seem to remember me when I think about them. Pop, in and out. They’re gone or I’ve turned them into places I want to go. Is this a skill or a limitation? Can being forgetful be a skill? I remember once asking my mother, and she said, I think it can be a skill. I also forgot to do your laundry this week. That’s a new skill I have acquired.

So I did my laundry myself, and I have to admit I was not very skilled at it, but then I was not very experienced at it either, and my mother’s skill at forgetting was increasing my skill at doing my laundry. I do believe it was a skill and not an accident.


  1. This Coffee Seems to Be Standing on the Thin Lip of a Receding Glacier

No fiery ending to the prophesied point of no return, no skewered souls draped over iron fences, no screams of agony calling vultures and preening crows, not even a fly in the aging coffee room but merely coffee-light, the walls stained sepia.

That bedroom will never be published because the bedroom is not a story. It cannot appear between small puddles of cream-colored candle wax on one side of the bed or hanging from an empty coat rack.

There might be pegs embedded in the walls to hold more of the missing elements, or a tooled belt stretched across the foot of the bed on a woolen blanket, its ochre and brick-red design faded and peppered with tiny moth holes.

There might be a tintype on the dresser revealing a man in a bowler hat with its crown pinched on the left side. He stands straight but seems hunched in upon himself, as if he were shrinking, someone you might meet in a taxidermy school.

There might be a Zebulon here, but a Zebulon on his way to Zebulon. Still anticipating arrival.

Next to the cup lies a bent cartridge casing with a piece of ragged shrapnel embedded in it.


  1. A Young Literary Officer with Vodka Breath

You probably feel that you’re the most interesting thing there is to read about, although you likely prefer it to appear in a disguised form so that you can feel you’ve made a discovery the same way I’m making one about myself by projecting it onto you. Of course if I’m right, which would make me a bit self-involved, then I should probably be approaching this a bit more indirectly, for my own benefit as well as yours. So imagine I’m wrong, and it’s me, not the author but just someone writing to you, who does these things, and I’m only looking for a little support for my peculiarities instead of making some grand discovery about the nature of language exchange.

Let’s assume then that, like a jukebox around 1939 in Oklahoma, I have no idea of what’s coming and will be the last to discover it when it arrives. If you have a book you haven’t read, you could go looking for me in it because there are some authors I respond to as if they were some part of me. I expect you’ve had this experience as well, but it might take quite a long time to organize all your reading responses in a way that reveals just the part of it which is metaphorically acceptable to a jukebox around 1939 in Oklahoma without actually being a jukebox and happening right now, in your mind at least, in almost anyplace, including Oklahoma.

If I wonder about these things to any great extent, eclipsing attention to character and plot other than that implicit in the immediate speculation, am I no longer writing, as I set out to, a fiction? What if this speculation were to appear inside a piece of fiction? Would that make these elements of literary chicanery appear as plot or character? I don’t really know, but let me be forthright enough to say that I find the element of plot the most suspect of all fictional devices and am often accused of trying to work myself around it.

For example:

My existence may have a certain chronology to it, but my understanding of my existence does not. This makes me feel slightly dishonest when I rely too much on plot, and it doesn’t seem to be all that much different if it’s presented out of sequence but a sequence is still implied. So I look for other structures with which to convey my sense of story, and sometimes I feel as if I am cheating. Often I am the one doing the accusing. I enjoy this thoroughly, just as I enjoy causing the need for this.

Let’s imagine, just for speculation, that there is something positive in what I do, just as I like to imagine it for myself, and compare it then to a modest success in lighting the way, such as a candle might provide. In making this comparison, am I not putting certain limitations upon the understandings that can be created about the meaning of the candle, if not the light itself produced by that candle, or the circumstances under which it was lit and is burning? In considering such conditionals, would we not quite easily soon become involved in aspects of stories that might soon erase the relationship to the candle almost entirely? As I begin to ask these questions, I have enflamed a candle in my room, where I write, and as I write, the heat has come on, for it is a very cold winter night with no snow but frost everywhere all day long, and my thoughts have quickly traveled outside, where, I suddenly realize, I can hear the call of an owl.

Might this owl then not be the real story? Should I tell you about how I spent the spring and the summer talking to two gray owls that perched upon the top of a small bridge I built between two ponds across the driveway from my front steps? Or would that be a time-enclosed understanding of what it means to me to talk to owls? What if I am deeply sincere about the meaning of such events, but they haven’t really happened, at least not yet?

And what about the candle, which I have drifted away from, although it has started shivering and dancing in the air, disturbed by the heat forced through the floor vents from a similar flame in my furnace in the basement? This is a pleasant little reminder of the cold in the basement, where the heat that now remains upstairs started, for the candles dance a very long time, but not such a pleasant one when I think about the furnace, which is using up an uncomfortable amount of propane. Then I must remember I started a fire in the fireplace in the living room. I go check to see that it is burning at a reasonable pitch to help keep the furnace from turning on so much.

Imagining what my critics might say, I acknowledge that I may spend a lot of time thinking about my experience, far beyond merely having the experience, which might be all or most of the experience for many people. Does this enhance the experience then or detract from it? Certainly we cannot have our fullest experience of life without thinking about it, but what if we think too much about it?

Now I come to the part where I must admit to certain limitations. I am in good health, but have never been quite as athletic as many, thanks to modest genetically inherited limitations. Has this made me more cerebral, or do I simply like to think about things? I think it’s the latter, but how could I really know? I have no alternative experience to compare it to other than that which I imagine, in other words, think about. If only I had experienced life without these limitations first, I might be able to tell you. But then perhaps I would not have developed my thinking sufficiently to do so, which seems impossible to me now, as I think about it.


  1. Another Visit to the Graveyard

Often I wonder what it would be like to become known for something after it was too late to know you were known, and what I would feel like if my accomplishments were still not realized by the time I had some reason to anticipate my demise, which I already do, but for no good reason except the reason every one of has, which could actually be a pretty good reason for wanting to be recognized right now, but I had had just a modest touch of recognition and found it time consuming and annoying in that tugging-at-your-sleeve for more recognition sort of way, the way you could find yourself spending all your time getting recognized instead of doing something worthy of recognition.


  1. Drunk Poodle Participating Only Tangentially

Lays down at your feet and whimpers if your bedcloths are not red snow.

Slick cables of rain slowly unroofing the sloppy shed she refuses tonight to inhabit.

Her stained housecoat in the cartoon of giving up where it grew a mustache, wore her out untrimmed and unworshipped.

She was not as young as she originally appeared to be.


  1. Still More Stuff

A moan appears in the heroine’s room, which has grown thick with interference. Are all these leaves words in a grand understanding of containment? Hack at them and they fall away and grow back, but briefly there is a satisfaction in clearing the way.

Again the path appears beneath the overgrowth. Only a careful man could walk there. Zebulon? Only a careful man would want to, but where is he going?

The light dims to amber. Have we been placed in a beehive? Hidden behind the alchemy of illuminated brown paper?

There is only one address, and it’s not on the map, which appears slowly beneath your feet as you move forward.

The wolf appears, with wings, and he hovers at your blossom, his mouth a raw cavern dripping gold.


  1. Not Quite Unnecessary Interlude of Manifestations Captured Mysteriously in Departing Insects

1) I was flippin’ drinks to these suits and then this guy in a torn t-shirt comes in, and one of the drunk suits takes off his jacket and then his tie and then his shirt until he’s sitting there in his T-shirt too, and then he ignores the guy who just came in. And then another suit does it and then another one. Then there’s a whole row of drunken T-shirts, she says, and something else is supposed to happen, but it doesn’t.

2) Frank and Frank go skiing. Frank and Frank fish with worms. Frank and Frank are not double, but Frank and Frank are too much.

3) Apartment is a piece of, and she’s an apartment of herself in this application of alone that separates her from the her she left behind.


  1. Surrealist Painting Stolen from the Story’s Garage by Paris Hilton

That’s not what happened. That’s the title of the painting she bought, so unknown except for the surface it could have been on another planet, muffled a bit, but the way a calliope screams delightfully in tune when the tune is still unknown.


  1. All My Lonesome Away Now

I’m not already there, but I’m already here, holding back a little, guttered and ditched, she thinks, even if she is me. Zebulon’s thinking water damage. He’s thinking conducive to brain restraint.

Flickering lamp and listen. Almost came and held not a prayer but a sky of it.

A machine for compacting mice, a desperation of intimacy.

The general fear is over-accomplished. Mine is already married. Go away now.

The train beside the railroad tracks is going nowhere.

Arriving at the beginning on a parallel track.

Ask Zebulon. He thinks he knows me.


Rich Ives has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Thin Air Creative Nonfiction Award. His books include Light from a Small Brown Bird (Bitter Oleander Press–poetry), Sharpen (The Newer York—fiction chapbook), The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking (What Books–stories) and Tunneling to the Moon (Silenced Press–hybrid).