It's my thirty-fifth birthday and some old friends are visiting. We drive up to Pioneertown's one bar and (separate) bowling alley where the singer who calls herself Cat Power has left her scoresheet on the wall. We bowl better in her glow and original pinks and greens of 1951 the alley's saved. Back in our civilian footwear we walk sand to Pappy and Harriet's Pioneer Palace and drink our beers, play Quiddler with a fresh deck as the band begins its roadhouse fight songs.
A marine with shaved head and band aid on his nose plops down and steals my wife's beer. She snatches it back, looks to me, my words forming in my hand. The soldier's buddy apologizes, says he's just returned from the sandbox that afternoon, forty Iraq weeks and they're getting him drunk. An officer, my age, in slacks and button down, leans in from the table behind, says he's watching, not to worry. I've been here before, in dark on a side road of my little town beside the army base.
I remember how beating felt, how good in cold to smile at ways they beat me. I'd always been hungry to be touched, and bread they fed me was sweet. All things that happen bad are soft to lay down on later. Once comfort I hoped for was gone, what was sharp and bitter was my mother. That was first Gulf War. Back in the roadhouse we finish our game, the bar closes, our wives go back to motel and we still thirsty drive into town twenty miles through summer's forest fire to Joshua Tree
Saloon, downroad from where Gram Parsons died twice in 1974, overdosing on heroin. The first time, his hooker expertly shoved a cube from the ice bucket up his ass, brought him back to life, yet he knew enough of life to shoot up again an hour later, when she stepped out for a cheeseburger. It's hard to save your own life, to take such extreme measures alone. The woman at the saloon, heavy with heavy curls collects drinks and asks are you a marine?
as I bruise past to the bar's blue ATM, and I do feel underwater, undersea five thousand feet above its level. And when I wake from my drowning, outside motel window the mountains are still deciding what gown to wear. Quail know the story. Between bushes they sing it. A hawk listens from the arm the Joshua tree waves with. My wife pours orange juice into a green glass on kitchenette beside black crumbs of birthday cake.