What We Talk About When We Talk About

Pepper burned my mouth
and all I could think of
in that salivated flame
was you telling me your tongue
no longer felt the heat
of a moment: meaningless
sex– bite and garment
here between the green
walls of your zen room
your small goldfish
swimming in circles–
submerged flame and hunger
for love so intense
I flicker poems to you
thumbs on lighters
waiting for the matchbook
to catch– combed pomade
hair, designer jeans, and wit–
what I want is origami
and fire– instead
we talk about love
but unlike Raymond Carver
we have nothing
more to say.


(originally published in Words Dance, Summer 2017)

Rob Delaney

Hi, I am Rob Delaney.
I am not Rob Delaney

and he would never begin a five-minute set like that,
but before California dangled blackberries
above my granite mouth,

Rob showed us the way and the truth and the life
(John fourteen-six by the score of silent thumbs)

god, twitter fame was the only thing
that could bring us nearer gods we do not believe in

this big bang of a perpetually expanding following
we cannot fully understand

by choice I never listened to robins
conducting high-frequency symphonies

(but I did read Last Call of the Passenger Pigeon
by Daniel A. Hoyt that summer
and could form the parentheses of a whistle
enough to calculate the slow kettle of tea)

my father would sit on a pig stump
(an oak whose life he ended himself)
and watch birds fly the superhighway,
clouds like rush hour in L.A.

like some hippie saint claiming
all that is God
is not man-made

I always thought of bird-watching as a way
for the elderly to augment their loneliness

now all the young men I know
fetishize loneliness in themselves


(originally published in LEVELER – Summer 2015)

Cavity of the Soul (Part II)

(continued from Part I)

At 7 AM Wayne’s alarm trilled him awake. Typically after a dental appointment, there are aches and pains, but he never felt anything this extreme. It felt as if malignant parasites had made a home in his teeth and rented condos in his gums. His cavity was on the right side of his mouth, but most of the pain was on the left. Without warning, the pain would switch sides. It made no sense. Wayne could not wait to sit back in that uncomfortable chair, in hopes that Hakoum could extricate the pain.


The lights in the office were off. The sign on the outside still read “CLOSED”. But as Wayne approached the door, the handle turned and soon enough a foreign hand held the door open.

“Sorry, the lights weren’t on,” Hakoum said, leading Wayne inside. “I just got here myself.”

The doctor flicked the lights on. “Not used to being here before the receptionist, either.”

Hakoum walked into the back and began a brew of pitch-black coffee.

“How are you feeling this morning?” he asked his patient.

“Awful,” Wayne said as he clutched his cheek.

“I figured,” Hakoum said, filing through papers at his desk. “Cavities are more serious than most people imagine.”

“I remember the story from yesterday,” Wayne said with a grimace.

Hakoum looked up from his desk. “There’s no reason to be crass with me this early in the morning.”

“I’m just in a lot of pain,” Wayne said, fingering his teeth now. “I don’t mean to be rude to the guy who’s going to be working in my mouth.”

Hakoum walked from his desk, clumsily bumping into another one on his way to get his coffee, knocking over a bunch of papers. Somehow they fell with a loud KLANK.

Wayne, curious as to how a bunch of papers could make such a loud sound while feigning a desire to help clean up, hobbled over to the stack of papers. There was an oddly-shaped bump at the bottom of the pile. Wayne cleared the top couple papers away and nestled underneath was a big, red power drill.

“That’s funny!” Hakoum said, cup of coffee in his hand. He picked up the drill with his free hand. “A drill like this has no place in a dentist’s office.”

Hakoum took a sip of his coffee and set it down. Smiling, he examined the drill.

“I wish the receptionist were here already,” Hakoum said. He pointed the drill like a gun toward Wayne. “I kind of think that if she’s not here already, she’s not going to show up at all.”

Wayne looked to see if anyone was even in the office at all. The place was completely empty except for dentist and patient, despite it being well past 8:00.

“This is getting a little weird,” Wayne observed, leaning against a desk.

“Dentistry takes a lot of people by surprise.”

Hakoum placed the drill back onto the desk. He led Wayne to the annex and opened the door to the same room they occupied yesterday.

“Go ahead and wait in there,” Hakoum said, pointing to the chair in-between sips of his coffee. “I’ve got to go prep the novocaine.”

Wayne thought about sprinting out of the office at that moment, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind, he felt his gums rage and burn.

So he sat down and waited, staring at the images again, his mouth feeling the imaginary pain that the children’s drawings on the wall portrayed.

He waited for a long time. He waited until the dim light of the room drifted him to sleep.


Hakoum was seen approaching with a needle when Wayne awoke.

“What are you doing!?” Wayne shouted at his dentist.

Hakoum slowed down. “I’m very sorry you woke up. I was just about to inject the novocaine into your right gum so that this cavity procedure would be as quick and painless as possible.”

“Well, wake me up for that, please, next time.”

“That kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”

“The purpose? The purpose of what?”

“Most patients are deathly afraid of needles. If they don’t know I’m sticking their insides with a needle, it makes it easier for me, too.”

“I’m not afraid of needles, but I DO like to know when I’m getting things shoved inside delicate places.”

The doctor shrugged. “To be completely transparent, I am about to…”

Hakoum stopped speaking, opened his mouth wide, and gasped in horror at whatever atrocity might have been behind Wayne, who turned his head to see what was happening. Hakoum stabbed him in the gum with his needle during the distraction.

Wayne howled with pain.

The light suspended above his chair became brighter than the sun. Wayne began to perceive everything in the room as cats, but soon Hakoum and the cat-shapes in the room became forms of pure blackness. “I want cotton candy,” Wayne mumbled.

“Causes cavities,” Hakoum said in a language that Wayne thought sounded like tongues. “Can’t administer.”

Wayne drifted into dreamland on a cat-shaped cloud…


After the minor operation, Hakoum was drenched in sweat and out of breath. He sprinted into the receptionist’s office. He fumbled through the jar of pens on the desk and scribbled some words on a piece of paper: “CLOSED FOR THE DAY – SORRY” and struggled to sign his name.

He ran outside with the paper and taped it to the door, over the “OPEN” sign. The receptionist sleepily walked down the pathway on her way to the door. Slamming the door, Hakoum went to the couch in the waiting room and pushed it to barricade the entryway. The receptionist knocked, jiggled the door handle, and then tried her key.

Hakoum administered himself a shot of novocaine. He took the power drill and opened Wayne’s mouth.

(to be continued in Part III)


There’s a monster out here. I gasp for air that suffocates my wheezing lungs.

I’m still alive? Drifting onward, towards the part of the sky not covered in lumpy blankets of gray, to a place of grass and underbrush and orb weavers. I hated spiders and the thought of their thick bodies and hairy legs squirming into my nose and mouth when I sleep. Now I don’t mind that thought, because if I close my eyes, the water will rush in and I’ll drown and something will eat me.

The waves caress and prune my body. Salt and dirt grind against me, beating against depleted legs. Can’t kick at the sea anymore, haven’t for days. So I wait with the rain for something, anything new.

There’s a foggy outline of a cargo liner in the distance. Every now and then I shout. Save me. Help. Goddamn it. Raspy whimpers marrying the sound of wind. Mostly I shout not to be heard, but to taste the saliva against my tongue, hoping for drips right off of my mouth to lick and savor. I can cup the spadefish or the black bass with my hands, but they wriggle away to their own meaningless lives, to become something else’s dinner. The salt we take in, we share.

In the left peripheral, something is watching me. But in the outer regions of my right eye, I notice the currents waft a snotty piece of wood an arm’s length away. Remnants from my sailboat? No, there’s no way. Right? Excruciatingly, I guide my abscessed eyes over to the piece, but my neck strains as my head turns and I cough out blood, the taste of iron and iodine sticking to my mouth. Not again. Everything is graying what’s going on maybe let’s close my eyes for a moment


Eyes open with a snort of water, against the stillness of rain. The red drop of blood on the surface expands, further putrefying the murky depths, amidst the gentle, beating pitter-patter rain drops from above.

Something clutches my leg like a blood pressure monitor deepens into its patient’s arm.


A geyser of red and muck encompasses the shadowy blob that emerges from the water.

From the gray, the outline of the beast becomes more lucid, as the mist clears.

“Water mammal,” I rasp out.

Its wide, stone-carved teeth and twin, ivory tusks belittle its childish face. It lunges forward, arms spread wide.

And it embraces me, pinning me onto its lukewarm body between its tusks.

“Human,” Walrus says.

“How…” I mutter, my head pressed against its squishy chest. “Do you…”

“Eat seaweed,” Walrus bellows, toothing a wide grin as it lets me go and recedes. “Lots and lots of seaweed!”

Vision blurs. The creature spins around, dancing like a tornado before I lose sight of it. The waves rush around my head, overcoming me. Water splashes into my eyes. Clarity. A hazy block descending upon my head. I close my eyes and move my hands to bat it away but


Right eye open. Modest sushine. The left eye is cushy, bleeding, and stuck. A searing pain in my forehead; think of something else. My tongue is parched, its dryness manifesting splits shaping themselves as veins would spread on a dying leaf, yet I lick the parched skin around my lips, still tasting the blood around my lips. A reminder of life. Dizziness and more blackness.

Light. The walrus leaps into the air with gobs of seaweed in its hands. Suspended in mid-air, it crosses its flabby arms before subsequently jerking them wide. Out of his hands fall massive lots of algae, a murky waterfall of algae.

“Seaweed!” Walrus shouts again, remaining frozen from its point in the sky.

The faunas creep along the water towards me, as if they have legs or minds of their own. Various kelp drag onward and lily spores march with their armies.


I pain to grab a seaweed, open my mouth to more chapping lips and my right eye diverts to the walrus.

Nothing there. Gone. Not even a splash.

Back on the water, I look toward my food. Missing. Instead, small crustaceans slink toward me; their thick, white exoskeletons skulking closer; tinny white legs paddling nearer.. nearer…

Crawling onto my clothes. Trampling upon my skin. Hunger in their tiny eyes. As they squirm up my neck, my mouth remains suspended.


(initially published in October 10, 2013 in ‘100 Doors to Madness‘  [Forgotten Tomb Press])


“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” Danny repeats. “F – L – Um, can I have the word repeated?”

Christ, Danny. We went over this word last Thursday, thank God. It’s the longest non-scientific word in the English language. This one’s important, bud.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” restates Ronald Hanson, the word pronouncer with a fancy Ph.D.

I flip my blue, custom-hardcover Oxford dictionary to the F-words.

Danny fidgets with his thick, wire-framed glasses, which magnify his brown eyes even more on stage than they do normally. Patches of sweat on his cheeks and his forehead coat him like honey under the key light.

“F – L – O – um,” Danny starts. “Mr. Hanson, may I please have the definition?”

“Cut it out, Danny,” I mistakenly say out loud.

Megan leans over to whisper into my ear.

“Shut up, Daniel,” she softly but sternly says. “We don’t want anyone to think that he might be cheating.”

I push her face away.

“No one is going to notice us. There’s a kid spelling,” I quickly speak.

“Yes, hon,” she says, moving her mouth back to my ear. “But didn’t you notice that there are cameras on us, too?”

I push her head away and notice the kneeling cameraman at the side of our row pointing in our direction.

“Um, can I have a sentence, please?” Danny asks, rubbing his bright yellow cardboard identification number against his oversized, “official” yellow-and-brown striped polo.

“God damn it, Megan,” I loudly whisper. “You made me miss the official definition.”

“Oh well,” she whispers. I sense a tone of malignance in her voice. “You know what the word means already, so…”

“The official definition might be unclear. Or wrong.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“I’ve told you a thousand times the spelling bee is rigged. They probably want that ethnic girl to win.” The foreigners always win, ever since the year I should have won and before that, too.

“Would you shut the fuck up?”

I gasp and cover her mouth with my hand. “Shh! Language! There are kids around!”

A middle-aged woman with honey-brown hair in her “official” polo suddenly appears at my side.

“We’re going to have to ask you to keep it down,” she says through big, gritted teeth in the fakest smile I’ve seen. “Or leave.”

“Well, what definition did he give?” I say, pointing to Ronald.

“Excuse me?” the lady chokes out, her fake smile making way for a squinty glare.

A swift glance reveals that people are now looking in my direction. It almost seems like people are more interested in me than my spelling child.

“I said, what definition did you give?” I repeat, much louder, directly confronting the official reader. “In the interest of fairness, I want you to repeat that definition. I didn’t hear it.”

A couple of the judges at the long white table stare ineptly at Ronald, who shakes his head no.

Danny helps me out. He asks for the definition again. With hesitation, Ronald looks at his dictionary.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification. Noun. The estimation of something as valueless or worthless.”

The eyes of the audience watch me still. I glare at anyone who looks at me, but the definition Ronald gave me was word-for-word what it said in my dictionary, so I’m content enough to proceed with watching Danny spell the word correctly.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” Danny says quickly, wiping his sweaty, tear-soaked face. “F – L – O – C – C – I – N – A – U – C – I – N – I – H – I – L – I – P – I – L – I – F – I – C – A – T – I – O – um.”

Come on, Danny. Come on, buddy. Finish it. One more letter and we get to proclaim: Daniel Johnson, Jr.: Spelling Bee champion. I’m so proud of you. Just finish it. One more letter and we get to hold that beautiful trophy together and be happy for the rest of our lives. Wait, buddy, are you crying? What the hell?

The Oxford dictionary is gripped tightly in my hand, pollinated with sweat.

“Uh, floccinaucinihilipilification,” Danny finishes.


“Christ!” I shout, rapidly standing and throwing my massive dictionary in one swift motion. It hits the chair in front of me with a thud and crumples to the floor. The fat parent in front of me spins around and says something I don’t hear.

Megan pulls at my shirt. It takes all of my strength not to hit her, but the camera is on us. I sit down. The people grumbling and whispering around me can kiss my ass.

“Sure wish there was a bar in here, huh?” I chuckle to the parent sitting to my right, who has refused to acknowledge me this entire time. “Because of drinks?”

The only other contestant left in the contest, the girl, comes up to the microphone.

“Floccinaucinihilipilification,” Ronald pronounces again with his fancy Ph. D.

She pronounces it and spells it quickly and clearly into the microphone.

The ding of doom doesn’t sound.

“Congratulations to Ecchumati Nityusander, the 2009 National Spelling Bee Champion,” a voice says over the loud speaker. An old, shriveled-up woman hands the winner the coveted, golden, glistening, bee-shaped trophy. The object of every kid’s desire. The girl lifts it up above her head, glowing, smiling so wide the tears on her face feel wrong. If I ever had the chance to hold the trophy, I sure as hell wouldn’t cry.

Rowdy, deafening applause. I feel myself falling into a dizzy spell.

“Bullshit!” I shout.

Everyone seems to clap in spite of me. Even Megan claps. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She doesn’t hear me.

“Fuck this!” I can barely hear myself.

I leave my seat, nearly tripping on one of Megan’s annoying feet. But I don’t. The high I get from keeping my balance while feeling dizzy makes me feel like I have wings. I effortlessly fly to the front, getting on stage.

The excited roar from the audience turns into a confused, worried, murmur.

“You can’t even spell your own name!” I yell at the girl.

Her smile twists into a fearful grimace as I effortlessly wrestle away the trophy from the young teenage girl. The bronze statue! I’m holding it! I’m actually holding it!

It’s lighter than I expect. I run to Danny, who is still seated, face buried in his hands, sobbing.

“Do you want to hold it?” I ask him. He doesn’t look up. The trophy sticks to my hands from sweat.

I plant a kiss on the bee’s forehead. I linger. It tastes like that new penny smell. I lift it high above my head. I wrote a speech for this moment when I was eleven. Seeing the occasional camera flashes nearly brings me to tears.

There’s chaos up here. The cameras want to capture it. The officials want to stop it.

“Put the trophy down and get off stage,” a short security guard warns me.

“I’m finally living my dream,” I tell him.

The police filter in from the back.

I don’t have much time.

“Danny, why did you purposefully misspell that word?” I ask. Danny’s face is uncovered, but he still refuses to look at me.

Three policemen swarm onto the stage.

“Put the trophy down!” the large officer orders.

I hold it tightly.

“Because I didn’t think you deserved to win,” Danny finally answers.

The trophy is wrestled out of my possession effortlessly. My hands are cuffed. I watch an officer bring the prize back to the girl. She takes it into her arms and hugs it. The audience erupts into cheers, again to spite me.