By EJ Spode.
Chapter 19: The Prosetry Slam
The day of the slam I arrived at the Stockman a couple of minutes before the contest started, and was surprised that it was more or less a full house. Penny was a master of social media; I had to give her credit for that. No one else would be able to fill a venue for a poetry – sorry, prosetry – slam in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or for that matter anywhere else.
Not only was it packed, but there was a fair bit of excitement in the place. To some extent, I’m sure, there was an element of train-wreck voyeurism to it, but apart from the potentials for disaster in the event, it was also something new. The local newspaper – The Argus Leader – even hyped the event a bit.
Word in the bar was that besides Olaf O’Brien, there were seven other contestants signed up the prosetry slam, and as it turned out, four of them had been creepers from the night before – that fat fuck of a crappie fisherman Corky Bruce, Curly, Mark Lamer, Dapper Dave. Then there was Tyrone, who the Street Racers had told me about – the guy who claims his ass can predict when a train will pass the Stockman. Then there were supposedly two other people – I wasn’t sure who. Then I learned that Dapper Dave had scratched, which didn’t surprise me a whole lot. The dude was not in a good place when I saw him the previous night.
As I was waiting for things to get rolling, someone touched my elbow.
“You showed up!”
“Of course, EJ, I always have your back, no matter how much of a fuckup you are.”
“You the best!”
“You know I am!”
“No but you are!”
“I said I know. So listen, EJ, you ready to rumble here?”
“Keep it pure, and keep it honest; that’s what these judges are looking for.”
“Got it, pure and honest.”
“Sodak real. Prairie rules.”
“That’s all I know, babe.”
“Break a leg.”
Penny took the stage at 9 PM on the dot and did the MC thing in classic Penny style.
“Welcome everyone, welcome. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. I think you are all in for a real treat, as we have some exceptionally gifted people sharing their art with us tonight. If you know me you know I’m not big on explanations – it’s up to all of you to find something meaningful in this work. If I had one word to describe the collection of people assembled here, it is just this: “love.” I can feel the love from the crowd, and I know almost all of the contestants here – although there is one mystery contestant, which is exciting – I think it is safe to say that “love” is the best possible term to describe their work. And with that, I turn the mic over to our MC, Lawrence Liverworth.
Like I said, that was classic Penny, but it was also classic bullshit. A lot of words could be used to describe the work of Corky and Curly and Lamer, but “love” is seriously not one of them.
First up was Corky. And I mean, wow, Corky was just… awful. I think I understand what he was trying to do. Start with some kid-rhyme and play off of that, and that can be done but you have to nail it, and Corky just did not have the skill set for that move.
Fishy Fishy in the Brook
Daddy catch it with a hook
Mamma cook it in the pan and
Baby eat it like a man
Like a man, baby,
baby like a man,
And what did we do for that man?…
Did we teach him to fish?
Did we teach him to cook?
Did we teach him to bait a hook?
That baby could have been a man,
That baby could have grown to fry fish in a pan,
To catch a fish
To bait a hook
To hunt a deer
But we failed.
We did not teach we did not guide.
And thus baby did not grow or learn to understand…
How to be… a man
That was so terrible I thought my head was going to explode. I was checking out Penny over at the bar, and she was visibly horrified I thought – that was good news; her sense of quality was still there. People weren’t sure if it was over at first. The applause was appropriately tepid. Someone in the balcony shouted “USA” and someone else up there shouted that thing that Marines shout: “Ooh Rah!”
The next contestant threw me for a loop – it was fucking Meej. First of all, the little shit never told me he was going to enter, and he had to know that this was about me and Penny and what was he doing sticking his shit up into that? Was he trying to get in her pants too? If so, that would be some sick ass diseased mind shit on his part.
That was my initial thought, but my second thought was, whatevs, he was going to bomb in any case. In fact, I was wondering why they gave him the mic he was such a bundle of neuroses. He was still wearing his ABS hat, which I thought was a self-defeating choice of headgear for a poetry slam. Sorry, prosetry slam.
Meej took the mic: “My prosem is called “phonies.” Then he cleared his throat and stood for a minute looking at the crowd with disgust before he continued.
Yer all phonies.
I’ve seen you and your weak-ass ways and your weak-ass dreams.
But your dreams are my nightmares,
They are phony.
You call me homey but I’m not your homey or your holmes
I’m not your buddy
Don’t call me boss, or cuz, or dude or friend ‘cuz I ain’t your friend.
Why would I be?
What do you do or say or think that would make me give a flying fuck about you?
You in your down vest and Timberland boots.
You in your fake cowboy shirt and you girl in your slutty dress…
None of you have anything I need or want
None of you say anything I want to hear
None of you care
(At this point someone shouted “sitdown!” but I was starting to get impressed.)
Look around at the kids in pain but do you care?
Look at the kids that are lost, but do you care?
No. You don’t fucking care, and that’s why I don’t fucking care what you do.
Do what you want, homey
I don’t care.
You’re a motherfucking phony.
There was some mild applause and quite a few boos. I was impressed. Little Meej got a reaction. Maybe I didn’t hate him after all. Still, no way he was going to win by peddling that shit.
Curly was next and he was, to be honest, not bad at all but he did seem put out by the whole affair.
“Thanks for coming all of you, this piece is call “Slam Sham.”
They said hey you should enter that poetry slam…
And I was like, why?
And they said,
They said hey cuz you know you are kind of a ham…
And you pretty sly.
That’s what they said,
But hey, what they meant is that I’m black.
And so I must know all about rap,
And so I must be good for a slam.
Just like basketball, he can slam…
So he can slam poetry – slam words — right?
But he can slam your head on the curb too right?
Cuz he’s black.
And if he won’t slam dunk and if he won’t slam words and if he slams your head on the curb, well then we throw him in the slammer — ha! Get that? – no slam? then the slammer..
For the good of society!
For keeping the peace!
For keeping our fair community free of thugs and villains and those black guys that won’t slam balls and won’t slam words
To the slammer.
Like all the other thugs that would not slam balls and would not slam words and would not flip burgers with a great big smile and would not wear khaki pants and polo shirts, well…
I’ll enter your slam
I don’t care if it’s a sham,
But I won’t enter to win and I won’t enter to impress you with my gifts with words,
I’ll enter for a chance to tell you who I am
He then went on a little too long with a prosem about who he was and more about why he hated what he was doing. I was thinking what everyone else was probably thinking. If you don’t want to read in a prosetry slam then why do it? It’s not like there is mad peer pressure for this sort of thing. Still, he got a nice round of applause because he seemed pretty sincere about the whole thing. If he were white I would have worried about him as a competitor, but those judges looked like they were going to ding him 20 points just for being black.
Tyrone followed Curley and he turned out to be black too. The boys hadn’t mentioned that; not that it matters. They had mentioned that the dude was obsessed with Chocolate donuts, and they were dead on the money about that.
He began, “my prosem is called ‘Chocolate Donuts’.”
“Plan: Chocolate donuts for lyfe. For the boys. Chocolate donuts made with cacao smuggled from Ghana and with lard rendered from wild boars – the Congolean boars that live on nothing but acorns and cocoa beans.
Recipe: Make Chocolate donut waffles…press fresh made chocolate donuts in a well-seasoned waffle maker. Carelessly drizzle chocolate donut syrup on and over…sprinkle with chunks of candied chocolate donut… serve on tarnished silver platter dusted with powdered chocolate donut.
Dinner: The boys drop their torches and leave their computers and sit down to bacon chocolate donuts sliced in half and used as buns, bacon chocolate donut buns for lamb burgers, slathered with habanero pepper chocolate donut salsa and served on handmade Venetian parchment paper. Thin sliced chocolate donuts grilled over mesquite coals and layered with bacon and ultra rare Chocolate Amazon tomatoes, gently placed on grilled sourdough bread and served on chocolate accent Wedgewood plates. More thin sliced chocolate donuts grilled in a pan with ham and insanely spicy Chocolate Habanero peppers slapped on cream cheese chocolate donuts and served on more chocolate accent Wedgewood plates. For desert there are chocolate donut truffles smoked for days in smoldering cacao pods and served floating in chilled bacon chocolate donut soup. Chocolate donut ice cream and chipotle chocolate donut ice cream floats.
La pièce de résistance: Chocolate donut holes gently ladled with Croizet Cuvée Léonie cognac — cognac mellowing in bottles since before the French wine blight, since before the American civil war, the very beverage reverently sipped by Churchill and Eisenhower as they planned the D-Day invasion, cognac that is just now finally ready to be infused into my chocolate donuts.
I fucking love chocolate donuts.”
I never knew people could love chocolate donuts, or really anything, so much. Was this a gay thing? A black thing? A gay black thing? Did he make chocolate donut dinners for the street racers? Would they eat such a thing? Is this related to his ass clenching up when trains are coming? Are people fucking with me here?
I looked over at the judges to see what they made of it, and my sense was they were thinking about it the same way I was – it was too much damn writing about nothing. It was too much donut talk. It was just too much.
Next up was Lamer. It seemed like he was trying to do a postmodern remix of Hunter S. Thompson.
“We were somewhere around Rapid City on the edge of the prairie, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I’m feeling a bit ratchet babe, can you grab the wheel,” but it was too late. For miles we had been huffing that vial of General Custer’s morning breath – the vial we stole from the secret crypt beneath the Mitchel Corn Palace – down in the prehistoric catacombs, down where they keep the swastika corn mosaics and remains of genetically modified animals – those agribusiness experiments that went wrong and led to the nine-headed vampire giraffes rampaging though the state capital, which is spelled Pierre but is pronounced peer and who knows why. But Custer’s morning breath. Those hallucinations. The flying love monkeys flew down and perched on the hood of our just washed candy apple Camero humping shamelessly while pooping dayglow rainbows of glitter and radioactive methane and my attorney – Reverend Dickie – completely lost it, screaming “get those fornicating vermin off of our whip” and began throwing the last of our mangos at them. And in that moment the whole ruse became clear. An ingenious plot by those oversexed winged primates – a plot to secure free mangos while getting a little action on the way. And like I pulled over, turned to Reverend Dickie as he launched the last of our precious mangos, and said, “your turn to drive babe.””
That was just wow. The problem was, ok, I get that it’s a riff on Hunter S. Thompson, but where was the value added? You know? Sometimes you are writing and sometimes you are just spewing. The fact that your brain inputs mad everything and makes julienne fries from it doesn’t make it writing. You’re just a word salad shooter.
The penultimate contestant was someone that I hadn’t met the previous night. Lawrence introduced him as Jimmy Kennedy, and the minute he took the stage in his fake coke bottle eyeglasses I knew he was going to be spewing a bunch of babbling Irish nonsense. Like I said, they have no respect for the pause.
“Thank you all, my poem is called ‘life.” Jesus take me now this was going to be terrible, I thought.
“The rumbling tumbling afterbirth of the whatthefuckupidness of it all.
All of it stuck to my shoe like the brown gooey residue of Mr. McNulty’s arthritic collie’s feckless efforts to expel the freeze dried raw horse kidneys that man in the store said you will buy if you love your dog. But that dog is dying love or no love kidneys or steak and kidney pie that dog is dead and as it decomposes in Mr. McNulty’s back yard thanks to the grubs and the bacteria it is barking it is barking thank you life for those days of stick chasing and rabbit chasing and tail chasing and for all those freeze dried raw kidneys and for the cat chasing and the ball chasing, and for everything in those seven years of life. Yes, yes, yes.”
Well, that wasn’t so terrible for what it was. And as the kid read I did notice he had a certain resemblance to the Leonardo DiCaprio of my jail cell dream, and that started to make me wonder. How often was this kid around? How well did he know Penny? I studied him some more. On examination, he didn’t look like Leo DiCaprio so much as a mashup of Leo DiCaprio and Eddie Munster – the pubescent werewolf kid from that cheezy 1960s situation comedy The Munsters.
When Jimmy Kennedy sat down all the girl bartenders stopped their bartending and cheered for him and shouted “Yay Jimmy” and Penny didn’t do that but she did ring the stupid cowbell, which was probably worse. It’s not that Jimmy was such a bad writer in his own run-on way. The problem was his life-affirming bullshit; it just didn’t make much fucking sense. We readers have unresolved issues in our lives. Stop telling us to smile and be happy and say fucking “yes” all the time.
In the minute. I was not a happy camper, but it was my turn. Finally, it was my turn.
MC Lawrence announced me. “And now, visiting from Southern Minnesota, Olaf O’Brien.” Mild applause. I was pretty sure I heard someone in the audience say “Olaf O’Brien? What kind of name is that?” OK, maybe I should have thought the name through better. It didn’t matter. I took the mic and looked across the bar and locked in on Penny, who was tending bar, and I waited until she stopped working and watched.
My prosetry was sure enough going to get her attention in any case. It was about our Mexican vacation. And I hoped it would get everyone else’s attention too, because it wasn’t really about the words so much as the spaces between the words. It was about silence and background noise framed – beautifully framed by imagery.
“This piece is called ‘this…’.”
“This micron pen…
……this wine……this music… this bread…
This cheese this Iberian ham…
…this minute that is never going to end…
…this truth…this beauty…this perfection…
And then I walked off the stage just like that. I could tell the crowd was into it because there was a perfect silence in all of my pauses – they were listening. And they were listening to the silence. They were listening to each other being silent. And they were waiting for what I would say next, and they wondered when I would say it and how I would say it. It was all just perfect. As I stepped off the stage, I saw Penny watching me from the bar. There was a pause, and then some loud applause and a few “woot!”s and even more whistles and Penny jumped over the bar and came skipping to me. We hugged for at least 30 seconds, although it was undeniably an ambiguous hug. She rested her head on my shoulder but kept both her hands pulled to her chest with her hands cupped and turned away from me. I put my left arm around her but left my right arm at my side.
I lost track of the contest for a minute, but then noticed that Lawrence was taking the stage.
“OK, we have our winners, if I can have everyone’s attention we have our winners here…”
Lawrence wasn’t very commanding with the mic.
Penny was like Jesus fuck, and she ran up to the stage and took the mic. “Can you all just listen up for a minute? Lawrence is gonna announce the winners and then we can get back to our drinking! OK Lawrence, take it away.”
Lawrence tried again. “First, let me introduce our judges. From Worthington Community College, we have professor of English literature professor David Setterby.”
“From here at the Stockman, Deadeye Jim ‘Jimbo’ Jones.”
His name was actually Jim Jones, like the Jonestown massacre guy. I immediately understood why he preferred Jimbo and/or Deadeye. And who was he even? He looked like a bar back. Did he know anything about literature?
“And finally, from Sioux Falls College, Dorothy Enders, Professor of Russian literature.”
Oh shit, Russian lit; I was worried that my piece was too short.
“In third place, with 21 total points, Ronnie Mejia!”
That sounded right. I had Meej scored out at third place too. I would have been concerned if fat Corky had come in third.
Lawrence continued, “Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentleman, because, for the first time ever, we have a tie for first place. With 25 points, Jimmy Kennedy and our old friend and prodigal son, EJ Spode a.k.a. Olaf O’Brien.”
I noticed that some of the female bartenders were shouting “go Jimmy!” which sort of pissed me off. Penny applauded about the same for both of us, so I couldn’t tell whose side she was on.
“The rules dictate that in the event of a tie we have a one-on-one prosedown!” Penny rang a cowbell behind the bar and there were some cheers from the crowd. My thought, though, was oh fuck, because I did not want to lose to this little shit and I hadn’t brought anything else to read.
Lawrence announced that Jimmy Kennedy would go first, which was a good thing because I needed time to think about what I was going to do.
“My second prosem is called ‘Death’.”
Of course it was, the little shit.
On that day, twas a day when earth gave way
And I tumbled through the moor and into the gray gray beyond
And the ancestors came and danced with me and fed me and exchanged the wisdom of the ages with me on that day, beneath the moor in the gray gray beyond.
And what they taught me was to keep on dancing and keep on fighting and to live live live because life is too too short and the dance of the dead is but a sad pale reminder of the glory that is life above, and the feasts of the dead are but shadows of the banquets we can throw above and so from that day I never stopped dancing and never stopped fighting and I never stopped enjoying my bubble and squeak and my steak and kidney pies and my pints and pints of stout.
Well that was certainly uplifting for a poem about death. It was really a poem about life – or at least a stereotype of Irish life I suppose. At least it wasn’t a limerick, but it was damn close. In that moment I knew I was going to beat little Jimmy and his superficial death poem, because I had one insurmountable advantage: The night before I had been to Hades and spoken to the dead and they as much as said that Jimmy’s story was BS.
I took the stage and said “My piece is called Calavera” and from that point on I free associated.
“Fuck you you sacks of flesh and bile and stupidity.
Keep your sugary skulls and your shitty offerings.
We don’t need them.
And we don’t want them.
We are fine, thank you very much.
But you, you sacks of flesh and bile and stupidity.
You ask us if there’s an afterlife, but we, we say you’re already dead.
You ask us for our wisdom, but we, why would we waste it on you?
You, who are already dead.
You, who died the day you set foot in the churches and schools that drained the love of life from you – that killed your creativity – that taught you not to think.
On that day, you stopped Living. Why should we care about you?
But we are fine. We will be fine. Just leave us alone.
And keep your fucking candy.”
I can’t say the crowd went wild, but my piece undeniably got the most applause; people obviously dug it. And I glanced at the judges as I was making up the prosem on the fly and they seemed to be grooving to it too – especially the bar back – that Jim Jones guy. I more or less strutted to the bar and ordered a beer from one of the bartenders – I think her name was Samantha. And I noticed that she had this look of disgust when she served me the beer. And I also noticed that all the other girl bartenders were treating me that way too. It was pissing me off. What pissed me off more was the way they were fawning all over little Jimmy Kennedy and telling him how his stupid poem “really spoke” to them.
At that point Penny announced that Mags would be reading a poem while the judges tabulated their final scores. As Mags took the stage a sense of dread overcame me, and it might have been my imagination, but I’m pretty sure she looked directly at me before she began her prosem.
“My prosem is called ‘Troublemaker.’”
“Tequila grapefruit piecrust day,
Wrong wrong turn
Daybreak piecrust tequila truth,
Tequila grapefruit lies.
Lies by the road
by the tequila road
by the tequila grapefruit pies
By the day,
By the night,
By the pie by the pound by the lie.
Lakota leveraged buyout bras
Tin can truths from subwoofer lies,
Tequila grapefruit lies.”
And she stared right at me as she finished her prosem. Now ok, let’s set aside whether her prosem was quality or whether it was crap. The point here is that she was obviously calling me a lying sack of shit. I mean, you know how bartenders are; they know people by their drinks, and yeah my drink is tequila grapefruit. But when did I ever lie to anyone about anything? The way I saw it, Mags was way out of line.
It was also pretty clear to me at that point that Penny had been hooking up with Jimmy Kennedy. It wasn’t that Penny gave it away, it’s that her girls did. This is how it is with a posse of girls. They never question what their girl is up to, they just keep saying “you go girl, I got yer back!,” and it doesn’t matter if the girl has a dude, or is breaking up with a dude, or thinking about breaking up, or cheating on him. The girl posse just keeps saying “yay, we love you.” Cunts.
When Lawrence took the stage to announce the winner I wasn’t even worried about winning. I just knew the judges were going to be with me after that round. And sure enough I won. I went up to the stage to collect my prize, which was a steak dinner at The Stockman and a moleskin notebook or something like that. I didn’t even notice the applause. I wasn’t finished.
“Do you all mind if I recite one more poem?”
The crowd shouted “yay!,” and Penny rang the cowbell again.
“This poem is dedicated to all of Penny’s friends that work here – all the fine lady bartenders, especially Mags.”
“It’s called ‘Cunts’.”
That got the crowd’s attention.
“Yeah you say you got your lady’s back.
And you say you love your lady dear.
when it counts, cunts.
But were you there when it counted, cunts?
Were you there to help her save the love of her life?
Were you there when temptation came?
Or did you bring the temptation like Cain?
Were you not able to do better? For your girl? For your friend?
Did you respect her choices her values her rock solid Gibraltar truths?
Or did you impose your own? Did you think, hey I’m gonna turn her on to my flow – my jam – my mores. Your own slutty cunt mores, Your whore mores your dopping your panties for diseased prairie cock mores?
Is that your idea of friendship? Is that your idea of having her back?
Do you even know what love looks like?
No you don’t and you couldn’t and you won’t.
I could go on and on but here is the thing. It is the one deep truth from which all others spring.
The deep truth is that you are all… Mother. Fucking. Cunts.”
And then I literally dropped the mic. It was beautiful. Or it seemed that way for a second.
As soon as I finished, everyone in the bar was staring at me like what the fuck was that? Meej, Athena, and Danny the hog farmer were standing there with their mouths open. Then Meej grinned, raised his beer, and shouted “Friday Night in Birmingham!” I had no idea what that meant.
I walked down to the bar area with a vague sense of sheepishness coming over me – like maybe I should have thought that through better. People parted and stepped back as I walked in the general direction of Penny, sort of like I was the guy stepping through he crowd on the way to charred remains of a house that had just burned to the ground with his wife, seven kids, and his favorite snowmobile in it.
Before I got to the bar though, Margaret walked straight up in my grill with her hands on her hips giving me that momma grizzly look that used to be threatening until Sarah Palin turned it into comedy. I could have sworn her head was going to explode Scanners style. She looked even more pissed than Daddy Larson was when he had to pull me out of the ditch the second time in the same day.
There was tense standoff between Margaret and me in the middle of the bar, face to face, and I was wondering: “Is she going to bitch slap me right here right now?” Margret has this crazy blonde ‘fro and for a minute it seemed to me that the curls were turning into snakes and Margaret was going full Medusa on me and I wondered if I had dropped acid and, you know, forgotten about it.
But just then Penny walked up and touched Margaret’s elbow and said something like “I’ve got it Mags,” and Mags stomped away staring poisoned blowgun darts at me as she she did so, leaving me now squared up against Penny.
Penny looked off-the-charts pissed. I mean I’ve seen Penny pissed before but this was a whole new level of penny-pissed-offedness. All she said was, “EJ, come with me.” She then led me into in the back room where they stock the cases of beer and cheap whiskey. She slammed the door behind us and spun and stared at me, and I immediately knew it was going to take some work to come back from this one.
Penny paced back and forth and lit up a cigarette. I decided it would be better to let her get some nicotine in her system so I didn’t interrupt. After three big draws on her American Spirit cigarette, she paused and looked at me.
“EJ you were a fucking tool to my girlfriends. That was NOT cool. Not at all cool. You need to apologize to all of them…”
“Look Pen I’m really sorry and I’ll apologize to them right away, promise, but first, the thing is…
… the thing is…
…I love you…
…I want to be with you…
…I’ll be done with coursework in April and I’ll be back for good. And…
…I love you…
…I now know I now understand…
…I want to be with you…
“EJ what the fuck are you trying to say.”
“I’m saying I want to marry you. Soon. I want to be with you stay with you take care of you love you worship you…to be your husband. Forever.”
I had rehearsed that line in my head, but when it came out it didn’t seem as compelling as I imagined it would.
“EJ… what the fuck EJ you come in here like what, your last day of break? And you want to marry me now? What the fuck, EJ we haven’t talked in three months!”
“Pen. Come on, we know each other… maybe even better than we ever have.”
“Pen it’s very simple, do you want to marry me or not?”
“EJ… no EJ no the answer is no there is no going back there is no getting married there is no prairie flower for you to come home to and pick in the spring I am not your flower to pick and to hold and to smell I am not here for you and your self-absorbed shit and your stupid sense of entitlement no. Just…no no no.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Image: Jana Astanov.
Chapter 1: Giants in the Earth:
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn:
Chapter 3: Dimebag Bob’s:
Chapter 4: The Trojan Horse:
Chapter 5: The Turtle Diaries:
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
Chapter 7: Penny
Chapter 8: San Pedro
Chapter 9: Triggered
Chapter 10: Letters and Dreams
Chapter 11: Helena and Steady Eddie
Chapter 12: Circe
Chapter 13: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Chapter 14: The Sleepover
Chapter 15: The Bittermilk Road
Chapter 16: The Rocket Sisters
Chapter 17: The Pelorum Avenue Street Racers
Chapter 18: I reconnoiter the Stockman
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 5th, 2017.