Gerald Fleming ~ Five Prose Poems

The Bastard and the Bishop

Most of the city is underground—that’s how cold it is here, great gal­leries, com­plex, rein­forced earth­en walls, apart­ments tiered four lev­els down, some­times five—the under­ground riv­er bisect­ing the city, lit blue or yel­low or green to denote neigh­bor­hoods, help drunk­en pas­sen­gers fer­ry­ing the riv­er find their way home. The build­ings that do rise from the sur­face lean for­ward, as if heaved by ice, as if expect­ing something—some mean­ing from cit­i­zens on their evening above-ground pas­sagia­to walk­ing qui­et­ly, the men in over­coats, hands clasped behind their backs, the women a few paces behind, bent, high-boot­ed and scarved, as if the path these cou­ples trace—a script cryp­tic, enigmatic—would one day, by dint of rep­e­ti­tion, trans­late itself into sense—a ratch­et­ing back­wards into the old dream of 90 degrees, into dim­ly-remem­bered sun­ny after­noons, warm stone, warm breeze.

You impute more to build­ings than is there, you say, but I say that it can’t be said that build­ings have no intelligence.

At night they auc­tion sto­ries here, and the rich send their rep­re­sen­ta­tives to bid for them, buy them; there­fore the cel­lars of the rich are lined with sto­ries, some of them my own. I don’t mean sto­ries I’ve invent­ed or read; I mean sto­ries of things that have hap­pened to me, things I’ve told out loud—the fist­fight with the man slap­ping the pros­ti­tute on the boule­vard, the drowned dog eddy­ing in yel­low light, the first time I made love with my wife.

I nev­er had the sense that these were “mine,” exact­ly. All sto­ries, once told, belong to all of us. But in the buy­ing of them, the stor­ing of them, I do feel that part of me is lost, and in fact all of us, when we try to tell our auc­tioned tales again, stum­ble on the words, can­not keep the thread, aban­don the end.

Friends of mine often leave their homes late at night, cold set­tling in from above, cross neigh­bor­hoods, blue to yel­low to green, find the fine hous­es where their sto­ries live, and pace—pitifully, it seems to me—in front of those hous­es, bright light flar­ing from win­dows like hyper­bole. It’s as if mere­ly being near their sto­ries can coax them back, but I tell them it doesn’t work that way. The com­mon ones remain in the cel­lars, the sexy ones in the vaults, and the ones heavy with irony in the poor­ly-lit libraries.

It is my belief that our auc­tioned sto­ries speak to each oth­er at night and are changed.

There’s a sto­ry I want to tell called The Bastard and the Bishop, and it is part­ly about me—but if I tell it, diaphragm its warm breath into the forty-degree air, and if one day at a din­ner par­ty you hear a sto­ry called Ten Bastards and an Archbishop at Fifty-five Degrees, say my the­o­ry is right, won’t you? And remem­ber me, think of me: I was the first of the for­mer bishop’s bastards.


By the riv­er, yearn­ing for an old friend, the cab dri­ver won­ders if he’s real­ly yearn­ing for an old friend or just yearn­ing for an old friend by a riv­er. Every day: pulls his cab over, gets out, stands at the rail. But this is no rus­tic shore: it’s a kind of vio­lence, col­li­sion of con­crete & water, veloc­i­ty & garbage, but still he stays there mes­mer­ized, the engine of the old Mercedes tick­ing, diesel smoke drift­ing his way.

The old friend he imag­ines is no one par­tic­u­lar. A man. I just want to stand here,the dri­ver thinks, in rain or sun, and have him come to me, put his arm on my shoul­der, maybe say, “What the hell are you doing stand­ing here look­ing at this stink­ing water? Get in the cab and go make some mon­ey. We’ll meet for a beer later.”

Every day he comes here like this, to the stink­ing water, every day at a dif­fer­ent hour.

(Fragment from an Interview) 

After the frac­ture her leg withered.

I was sent to speak with her. I remem­ber it in black & white, somehow—she, propped side­ways in a leather chair, her good leg thrust over it, her bad one tucked under it at a slant. I had on a white shirt & black pants, black shoes, and sat in a sil­ver fold­ing chair, a glass of water in my right hand, pen in my left, note­book on my knee.

I was sent to ask about the acci­dent and her career, the con­cept of run­way, which was hers no more, an irony in the word now—I was sent to bring out that irony for a head­line. Young then, moon-faced; in ret­ro­spect I see that I was set up, naïve to her reputation.

I start­ed in and she just shook her head.

Icarus, I thought she said, and I thought, O.K., I can go with this, fall from a great height, unthinking…

I can see a sim­i­lar­i­ty there, I said, but say more, please. Icarus flew too close to the sun, he was warned, as your agent warned you not to go to Istanbul?

            No, she said. Not that Icarus. Ichorous, and she spelled it: I‑C-H-O-R-O-U‑S. You know what it means?

            I must admit I don’t.

            Having the qual­i­ty of a watery, bloody discharge—usually from a wound. From ichorBut do you know what ichor used to mean? A flu­id, a heav­en­ly fluid—running through the Greek gods’ veins. Vanity Fair com­pared me to Persephone once, the way I’d dis­ap­pear part of the year, and it sort of caught on, and for a while that dis­pen­sa­tion served me. But you know, strange thing. Ever have a horse­fly loose in your house, came in through the open win­dow, can’t find its way out? Can you bring to mind that sound? Every time some­one called me Persephone I’d hear that fly, a shit­fly, there in the back­ground, as if the sound itself was some por­tent, some pref­ace to the acci­dent. And here I am, for­ev­er in the fuck­ing under­world, and you have stepped into it, my friend. You’re in. Want to meet Hades? He’s in the oth­er room. Come over here, sit right next to me. We’ll give you an interview.

Now: let’s go. Ever been in a Turkish hospital?

Get him out of the wind,

one of them said, and that seemed a strange thing—the voice that said it, one of them, becom­ing human that moment, as if there could be a chance that not all hope was lost. But of course hope waslost—there were just min­utes now, and, fac­ing the wall, away from the wind, the body itself seemed some­thing to be cared for, grate­ful that it wasn’t in wind—that north­east blade of ice that had insult­ed it for twen­ty years! So yes, in the last moments there it was: kind­ness in a human voice and the grat­i­tude of a body still alive, and it was still his body, and though he knew the end would be quick, and though he could not know how painful, and though of course there was fear and it was ris­ing, some­thing inside rejoiced.

Let’s orga­nize a parade of one-legged war heroes,the President said,

fif­teen years of road­side bombs, there must be thou­sands of ’em! We’ll dress ’em in bright col­ors, the lost lefts we’ll do red, the lost rights we’ll do in Air Force blue, we’ll fly ’em here, put ’em up a few nights—vouchers for drinks, that’s all it’ll take—they’ll march the half-step, we’ll goose-step ’em, left flank & right, and when they’re told to Close Ranks for the cam­eras, they’ll look whole again in the after­noon light & our great nation can forget…

Dressed in pol­ished cot­ton, the sol­diers came, did as they were told. Up the straight avenue they marched, young men, young women, slow but lock­step, eyes raised, tele­vised, unwa­ver­ing, arm in arm for support.

And then, as one, they fell, The Domino Effect come true, but not the way the gen­er­als had warned of it, been fund­ed for it so long ago; there on that glo­ri­ous day the one-legged war­riors fell, men against women against men against men, arm in arm they went down in the clat­ter of pros­thet­ics, the reds into the blues in one wave undu­lat­ing down the avenue, the band on the band­stand anthem­ing its mar­tial pageantry of spring, cher­ry blos­soms adrift in the brisk April breeze.

What about one-armed men, then, said the President. They can still salute, can’t they? Let’s make ’em salute. What about gur­neys? Can we get guys on gurneys…


Gerald Fleming’s most recent book is One (an exper­i­ment in mono­syl­lab­ic prose poems, Hanging Loose Press); pre­vi­ous books are The Choreographer (prose poems, Sixteen Rivers Press), Night of Pure Breathing (prose poems, Hanging Loose), and Swimmer Climbing onto Shore, (poet­ry, Sixteen Rivers). His work has appeared in New Letters, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hanging Loose, Carolina Quarterly, New World Writing, Volt, and The Prose Poem, many oth­ers. Between 1995 and 2000 Fleming edit­ed & pub­lished the annu­al mag­a­zine Barnabe Mountain Review, in 2013 edit­ed and pub­lished the lim­it­ed-edi­tion epis­to­lary mag­a­zine Forward to Velma, and is cur­rent­ly edit­ing both the lim­it­ed-edi­tion vit­re­ous mag­a­zine One (More) Glass and The Collected Poetry & Prose of Lawrence Fixel. Fleming taught in San Francisco’s pub­lic schools for thir­ty-sev­en years and has writ­ten three books for teach­ers, includ­ing Rain, Steam, and Speed (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). He lives most of the year near San Francisco and part of the year in Paris.