Trembling Demon – Maxwell Pretzer

Sunshine summons salty spheres to form
on my forehead as I sit on the steps of
the First Baptist Church of Hollywood.

A man walks westward on Selma toward
the church, clad in tattered clothing,
bearing a knotted, unkempt beard.

I meet his furtive gaze and nod,
acknowledging him but saying nothing.
He sits on the steps too, hidden from
view by a column supporting the portico.

Following his lead as he sparks
a cheap cigar, I pull the joint I’d
rolled at home from behind my ear.

Our smoke coils like a rope
of serpentine sex, intertwined and
writhing in the windless day. We
toke together in silence.

Fleabrained, my thoughts leap back
to Massachusetts where I was born,
outside a church I actually belong to,
or did, because I was baptized into it.

A patriarch pipe puffer outside
the fellowship hall. His tobacco
smelled sweeter than any cake
or cruller the flock fed upon.

Those coffee hour clouds had an admirable
aroma, an odor I associate with church, and
thus, with my moral convictions, and thus
with whom I consider myself to be, which is,
of course, also a memory, an idea I carry
through time, a storytelling tapestry.

Brow brine drips into my vacant, naked eyeball,
rending the dream. A motorcyclist zips along
Selma, eastbound, turning south onto Las Palmas.
As he leans into the curve a quarter ejects from
his pocket. It careens toward the curb but the man
in tattered clothing surges and snags the silver circle.

Heat hastens my departure. I’d hoped to
sit a while longer at this weird in-between,
a place people mostly pass through. I chuck
my extinguished roach toward a pile of cigarette
butts clustered around another pillar like rancid
dates beneath a palm, avoiding eye contact
as I slink by my fellow stoop sitter, feeling
guilty, not because my pockets are barren
but because I’m unsure I’d give the man a dollar
even if I had one, not that he’d asked, not that I’d
made any effort to communicate, apart from the nod,
that most basic currency of cordiality which usually
means, at least in Hollywood, “Don’t talk to me.”

I follow the flow of feral plastic and heaps
of shit for a few blocks toward my building.
Crows caw, old pickups bleat their rusty
horns. Already, I need to get high again.

A haggard woman argues with an invisible
antagonist among the roots of the ficus
that shades my apartment’s balcony,
providing a hide from prying eyes on the
street but not from beneath. Once I get
upstairs she’ll still be able to see me,
though I’m not sure she sees me now.

Dusky eye shadow flashfloods the pocked gulches
of her cheeks as the ghost berates her. “I don’t
need this shit from you!” she shrieks, rocking
back and forth on a discarded mattress,
knees pressed against her chest, whispered
weeping cut with defensive rancor.

After ascending the stairs to my apartment, I
slip off street stained sneakers, head to the balcony,
roll another joint and light it. A tubby, yellow
warbler flickers through gray and green,
scouring the ficus’ bark for scuttling snacks.
Below, the haggard woman whimpers but soon
I’ll be able to tune her out. Soon I’ll turn away
from the mirror and forget what I look like.