Room 66 • Poetry Hotel
Five Prose Poems / Michael Shay
ROCKETS OVER FITZGERALD
In Rockville, Maryland, the bombs are bursting in air and give proof to the night that you are still
there in the ground, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, you and your lovely wife Zelda. Once upon a time
you were always moving, a Jazz Age rev powered every step and leap of faith toward faithlessness.
From Princeton to the South of France to the Garden of Allah Hotel in Hollywood, Scott, where you
used to send postcards to yourself. On a December day in 1940 you swooned for the last time and
your lover who wasn't Zelda packed you up and shipped you off to Rockville with the cross-country
mail. The Fitzgerald dead go to Rockville but the bishop said you were a blasphemer, not fit for
churchyards. Much later, when even Catholic school kids again read your books, the Church
permitted its wayward son a place at St. Mary's. Zelda, too, dead in the Asheville asylum fire. Now,
every Fourth of July, Chinese star shells explode over the Fitzgerald clan. Children chase each other
over your graves; imprints of their small feet on the wet grass don't last. Fireworks illuminate the
shared granite marker with Scott's (lightly revised) last line from Gatsby: "So we beat on, rockets
against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Nurse Jim Douglas left work at five o’clock. The car struck him ten minutes later at the corner of
Elm and Vine. He sailed through the air, all the while thinking that this was an absurd thing to
happen to an E.R. nurse. He spent long days tending to patients struck by cars or bolts of
lightning or random suicidal thoughts or stray bullets. There, there, he’d say. You’ll be right as
rain in no time. Into the E.R. came distraught parents with banged up kids – and grown-up
children with disoriented elderly parents. Dog bites and bee stings and everyone feeling sad, as
the song says. Don’t think of the sad parts, he thought as he sailed through the warm urban
evening. It didn’t hurt yet but he knew it would by the time he landed with a splat in the street on
the sidewalk or on top of another car or in the path of a rush-hour bus. He was light as a feather
now. When he landed, he’d be heavy as a ton of bricks. He and his lovely wife and two unruly
kids lived in a brick house just a few blocks from downtown. If they looked out the south-facing
front window right now, would they see him? Mommy, I see Daddy flying – and he has a funny
look on his face. That’s nice kiddo. Children and their imaginations! As if nurses could fly. But
here he was, flying just the same. On his descent, Jim pondered two outcomes. Instant death on
the asphalt. Or an acrobatic feet-first landing. He got neither. When he opened his eyes in the
E.R., the wall clock read 8:05. He had a headache and his right leg throbbed. Mouth dry as a
desert wind. A nurse swam into view. She looked familiar but Jim couldn’t conjure a name. She
smiled. Didn’t your mama teach you to look both ways before you cross the street? I was flying,
he said. The nurse patted his arm. That’s what they all say.
My dying father found comfort in morphine and Abba. Same thing, I thought as I listened again
to “when you’re near me darling can’t you hear me? S-O-S.” The song ended. “More” he said
from the bed. More morphine? More Abba? He once hated our Hendrix and Morrison. “Turn off
that noise,” he yelled, bobbing like a fishing lure in the backyard pool’s shallow end. He never
learned how to swim. Lived half of his 78 years in Florida a block from 100 billion gallons of sea
water. Turn it off, Dad, I thought about the band that soon would become “Mamma Mia”
famous. “More,” he muttered. This man who once crouched frozen in Ardennes mud trying to
raise someone anyone S-O-S on his Army Signal Corps radio as the Bulge collapsed. This lonely
boy who built crystal radio sets in his Denver basement, played trombone in the marching band.
This father who built his own hi-fi set in a Kansas basement, hiding from his rowdy kids. This
devout Catholic who, at the end, yelled for Abba. Not a shout-out to his heavenly father. His plea
to crank up the volume, dammit, hear me – S-O-S!
THE FUTURE OF SURFING IN WYOMING
Almost everything that was here before lies underwater now. Houses, vehicles, factories,
playgrounds, cemeteries. We have seen them in the murky depths. All those lives lived at a brisk
pace. A doctor delivers babies all day at the hospital. A rodeo cowboy ropes a steer. A boy kisses
a girl or a boy for the first time. An old man gives up the ghost. Their spirits lie under six-
hundred fathoms of salt water. We know what they look like because we have found their bones.
The bipeds are gone but the mountains remain, although now they are islands. The wind and
tides stir the ocean and waves break on what once was a rocky outcropping where an ancient
humans might have stood upright to view the horizon. We surf the waves as if we are sea
creatures because that is what we are. Every so often, the ebb and flow reveal a scrap of the
ancient civilization below. A cowboy hat. A fuzzy ball. A piece of cloth. A plastic bottle. One
day, I snatch a bottle out of the boiling surf. Inside I find a brittle sheet of paper. A color drawing
of four humans – a tall one, a medium-sized one, and two little ones. Ancient runes spell this out:
M-Y-W-Y-O-F-A-M-I-L-Y. We can’t read the ancient text. The drawing dissolves in my flippers
and drifts away. I wonder, briefly, about the meaning of MYWYOFAMILY. And then I kick to
shore, riding the next bitchin’ wave.
WELCOME TO ZAN XLEMENTE, ZALIFORNIA
My daughter M went to a nuthouse in San Clemente and all I got was this lousy metal keychain
with CALIFORNIA writ large the blue of the sea under a gold-and-orange/red sun. M goes to the
beach every afternoon, the only one of her group who swims, the only one who sticks her head
underwater and body surfs the waves her arms cross-hatched with razor cuts her bloodstream
salted with meds that start with X and Z. Why is it always X and Z? The drugs cause delusions
and weight gain out there in Zan Xlemente, Zalifornia. My daughter calls and says she
sometimes feels like a seal riding the waves. When she was five, her kindergarten teacher called
and said can’t you do something about your daughter she thinks she’s a cat prowling the
classroom on all fours and licking chalk dust from her arms. She meows answers to the teacher’s
questions as she does with us. That’s progress I guess. Cats won’t go in the water and seals send
us keychains from The Golden State.
About the Author
Michael Shay’s shorter works have appeared in New Flash Fiction Review, Silver Birch Press, and In Short: A Norton anthology of Brief Creative Nonfiction. His book of short stories, The Weight of a Body, was published by Denver’s Ghost Road Press in 2006. He has published
traditional-length essays and short fiction in anthologies including Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams, Coffee House Press; Companions in Wonder, MIT Press; Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone, Sastrugi Press; and Manifest West: Even Cowboys Carry Cell Phones, Western Press Books. He’s published in these journals: Northern Lights, High Plains Literary Review, Colorado Review, Owen Wister Review, Relief, Visions, and High Plains Register. He is working on an historical novel, Zeppelins over Denver, in which he reimagines
his family’s 100-year history in Colorado.
Michael has a B.A. in English from the University of Florida and earned his M.F.A. in creative writing in 1992 from Colorado State University. A Colorado native who grew up in Florida, Michael retired in 2016 after 25 years supervising literature programs at the Wyoming Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. He lives with his family in Cheyenne, Wyoming. His website is hummingbirdminds.com
“Flying Nurse” was published in a longer form in High Plains Register, 2010 issue.
“S-O-S” was published in Silver Birch Press’s “When I Hear That Song” series, November 2015.
“Welcome to Zan Xlemente, Zalifornia” appeared in New Flash Fiction Review.