Tone is a central element of my poems and my stories. When I’m writing less effectively, my tones fight each other and create an unclear impression. It usually happens because I still don’t know what I want to say, what I want the piece to do. I am attracted to humor and to tragedy, perhaps in equal dollops, so my work may have elements of both in the same piece. It’s like my adoration of 60s pop music. How could I possibly live without listening to Claudine Longet? But I need to break my head into a million crimson and clover pieces with Tommy James and the Shondells too. I often begin something thinking: this will be a sad one or this will be a funny one. Then a character goes in a direction I hadn’t anticipated—or the character becomes more real to me—and I confront new issues and opportunities with tone.
I’m a teacher. I “instruct.” I don’t know what “instruct” means in my own creative writing—do I want to “teach” readers something? I’m a goofy Moses. My lavender tablets broke before I reached the mountaintop. Yet I hope what I write leaves room for thought, for contemplation, and maybe a chuckle along the way. I have no interest in lecturing readers or playing the role of prophet. I am no prophet and here’s no great… wait a sec, that sounds familiar. Oh yeah, Eliot. He could be funny, ironic, heartbreaking, and a little creepy all at once.
Tone. Pick a tone, any tone.
“Nice Boy, Cold Milk” does have a bit of me in it. An idiot gym teacher in grade school punished me for smiling. He thought it meant I was acting smart to him. I wasn’t. It was a smile, a daisy. He took his scissors and cut off the bloom. In other places, like church, I felt like I had to smile—proving that I had the “joy” of Jesus. The smile grew like a helium balloon but sooner or later the balloon drifted to the earth. The smile in “Nice Boy” is ambivalent—it is Marty’s trap, his role, yet it draws people to him, helps others to like him. Tone. Which is it? Choose. Don’t choose. Smile. Or not.
Kenneth Pobo won Main Street Rag’s 2009 poetry chapbook contest for his manuscript called “Trina and the Sky.” He teaches Creative Writing and English at Widener University in Pennsylvania. Catch Ken’s radio show, “Obscure Oldies,” on Saturdays from 6-8pm EST at WDNR.com.
Marty Van Buren, yes, a distant relation of the eighth president, is having a hard time today at his job at Arthur Food and Drugs. His boss Mr. Dickles says, “That Marty has a smile that could power all the taxis in Manhattan.” Marty smiles back. This isn’t Manhattan, a place Marty has never been. This is Micah, Kentucky.
The high school check-out girls like Marty.
Carrie says, “I’d love to date him.”
Trisha says, “I’d do more than date him.”
Lara says, “Jesus won’t let me have sex, but I could email him my naked pictures.”
Carrie says, “I already did that. He wrote back thanks.”
After Marty shelves all the breads that had come in, a big dairy order shows up. He keeps smiling. Grandma Kate insists that “A boy who smiles provides a light in the darkest mine.” Arthur Foods feels like a dark mine so he smiles, sometimes hums softly.
While putting milk cartons in the freezer, Marty quits smiling. His face breaks into a hundred thousand frowns. Passing by, Mr. Dickles catches the frown.
“What’s wrong, Marty? Stop frowning. It’s scary.”
“I can’t help it. It’s like my face broke.”
Mr. Dickles hurries off to his upholstery. Marty finds himself trapped inside a carton of 1% milk. This puts a crimp in his plans to watch All About Eve on the Movie Channel later that night. How he yearns to be Margot Channing, style and talent, but here he can’t hope to be better than a walk-on. He writes Bette Davis fan letters, hoping she’ll send him some sign.
He doesn’t feel afraid, just soggy, like a cold cornflake. Someone will buy him and he’ll swim out of the spout and reappear in a warm kitchen. His smile returns and maps his face. He pictures Grandma Kate’s Auntie-Emmish looks, hears her saying, “Marty, Marty, where are you, Marty?”
When no one buys him, he gets tossed in the trash. The police investigate his disappearance for a few months until a celebrity dies and people sit before televisions singing hymns like “The Old Rugged Commercial.”
In church, the week that Marty’s declared dead, Pastor Blamp says, “Let us remember that Marty’s smile is now lighting the clouds so that angels and saints can see the score for their harp songs of praise.” Grandma Kate loves having the house to herself again. She took Marty in when his parents abandoned him, his mom off to Vegas, his dad off to Nashville to try to become a world famous whittler. The check-out girls get boyfriends except for Lara. She takes up with a woman in Lexington.
Rumors abound about Marty’s smile. Has it become a UFO often seen in the night skies? Does it form in odd places like on Cheetos in the Dine-A-Way Café? Or has it gone to Heaven, stationed at the edge of a cloud, our blue world beneath it, the cloud drifting and drifting, eternity following it like a hound?
by Kenneth Pobo