At a Bar, or Series of Bars, over a Series of Evenings or Years

by Joy Castro

                       …friends? 
                       Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known. 
                                                                                 —Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen

The way seas rush.  The way your fingers on my mouth.  The soft way porcelain shatters on stone, grateful.  The way you can’t recall the fog that day in autumn we walked through the park, when white clung to the edges of everything, clouding the boundaries around us, as though perhaps we alone floated among leaves that fell like thin flakes of rust.

You, stranger.  Enigma machine, endlessly coding.  Your words, silver ingots I buried in the park somewhere.

Knowing I am rich.  Not knowing where to push my spade.

Or the way I daily balance on one foot, ankle lifted under the hot sluice, sliding the blade, slicing away the proof of my animal nature.

Like silver ingots, but not silver.

Like the clean blade slicing, but not clean.

The chasm between the word and the thing it might mean in your mouth.

Whose meaning I have never known.  Which is not to say I would not learn, would not lick meaning like liquor’s burn from your tongue.  As cats lap milk.  New glyphs on new walls, graffiti down streets I’ve never seen, the way a city opens and opens, the way your legs’ tired muscles know how far from home you’ve come.

How far from home I am.

Now you use a word.  Use.  Make of it a tool to wield.  Instrumentalist, user.  Only music.

Windfall:  a blessing, unexpected.  A piece of good fortune, a boon.

Unless you ask the tree, so rudely stripped. 

A matter of perspective.  Standing there bare.  The cold wind.

Your Caesar-word, imperious, imperative, and me touching the lip of my glass like touching the shoulders of a fawn, light gestures, steering us back to the safe forest of subjunctive.  If it were to be the case that I should ever come to comprehend your strange word, your foreign frightening meaning, its possible invitation to leave behind the husk, the shell, the shed skin discarded in the dust, then I would, I could, I should perhaps possibly move in a particular direction.  

Perhaps your fingers would find my mouth, then.  

Perhaps the fog would lift.  

Perhaps the way would open—broad boulevard of the possible—and our tired legs would carry us into the glittering city, farther and farther from home.

Whose meaning.  Whose meaning.  Whose.

                                        First published in Quarter After Eight

Joy Castro

Three Questions for Joy

What is the significance of this work to you?

"At a Bar, or Series of Bars, over a Series of Evenings or Years" has a deep personal significance to me⁠—too personal to share with the world, I'm afraid.  I will say that I'm very happy it has found a home⁠—twice now. I'm quite surprised and grateful. 

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

The indefinite status of its genre, as well as its breaking-off moments, seems to me to resonate with the ambiguous situation the narrator describes:  yearning, uncertain, ecstatic, lacking closure. To me, it feels strange, unearthly:  an incantation or a spell more than anything one can easily name. 

What was the process for creating this work?
I was asked by the wonderful journal Quarter After Eight to compose something in response to a fragment, which they assigned to me, from Baudelaire.  I was filled with yearning, uncertainty, and ecstasy at the time, so that's the way I wrote.  For a couple of weeks, I revised it—reading it aloud, polishing, and so on—and then sent it off.

Born in Miami, raised in England and West Virginia, and educated in Texas, Joy Castro is the award-winning author of the memoir The Truth Book, two literary thrillers set in post-Katrina New Orleans: Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Her work has appeared in venues including Ploughshares, Senses of Cinema, Brevity, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Salon, Afro-Hispanic Review, Gulf Coast, and the New York Times Magazine. The Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches creative writing, literature, and Latinx studies.