John Repp


Palabras Escritas by Angel A. Alphonso Castillo

Again, Hank felt bitter and told himself so. No, not “felt”–was. He was it. “I am bitter,” he said aloud in the dressing room at Robert Hall, the kidney-shaped seat piled with slacks and button-down Oxford shirts. For once, he didn’t care who heard.

He’d said to the salesman, “I need slacks,” had expressed a need for something called “slacks,” had become a man who knew the difference between Oxford and broadcloth, between calf and goatskin, linen and silk, the colossal cliches of suburban boredom and the commonplace idiocies of solar-powered veganism–an exile, a refugee, but from what? From where?

The phlegm in the back of his throat tasted bitter. Impossible! No one had taste buds back there. But bitter it was. The saliva pooled beneath his tongue: bitter. His teeth: bitter. He ran the tip of his tongue over his lips: bitter.

He swept the dressing-room curtain aside, strode across the sales floor, and pushed through the revolving door into the afternoon’s blast-furnace heat. His car, rolling oasis of cold air and music, glittered and flashed somewhere in the blinding lot. He set off to find it, his clothes already damp with sweat.

That evening, a tumbler of cranberry juice on the end table to his right, Hank sat in the rocker his grandfather had fashioned from hickory, leather, and horsehair. The long-dead forebear’s massive dictionary rested on his lap, having revealed that “bitter” had to do with biting, splitting, beetles, hunting dogs in the Frisian forests, falconry, the split planking of dugout canoes–Teutonic canoes biting the current of streams and rivers in medieval German duchies, no less. The dry bite of bitterness had come clear in his mind, but as usual, clarity did little good.

Did the speakers of Old Dutch taste it as they spoke? Did the Frisians feel the buzz under the sternum, the Old French the constriction of sight to a tunnel with the circumference of a dead reed, the Saxons the acrid desiccation of the gums? The bitter sphagnum in which envy roots? The witch hazel astringency of praise?

Things had not always been this way. Just a week ago, before the windless, murky heat had obliterated it, sylvan weather had graced the entire floodplain. The porch swing swayed in the cool breeze, the cat purred, reading banished time, and conversation, ping-pong round-robins, and cookouts filled gemütlich evenings. Yet at the bottom of it all, bitter he had been.

His rage to solve it didn’t mean humor had entirely deserted him. “I want to salve it, not solve it,” he’d chuckled one stifling dusk as fireflies rose from the marshy creek across the road. Bitter barbs do bite, don’t they? Linguistic play pleased him, even as he raged and cooled and raged again.

It came from nothing. It came from everything. The dry tongue, the jammed thoughts, the constricted breathing. Not even wind at long last shushing through his beloved rock maple could finally salve it, not even the clump of sumac that bordered the drainage ditch, not even the grilled trout, the basil, the wild violets, the finches, the wrens, the wild turkeys, the albino deer that browsed the far corner of the alfalfa field the landlord’s cousin had sown. Not one phenomenon was sufficient in a world that had birthed the sound, the idea, the bleached horizon, the permanent taste of bitter.


About the writer:
John Repp lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. He has two chapbook-length collections of poetry forthcoming: Madeleine Wolfe–A Sequence (Seven Kitchens Press) and Cold-Running Current (Alice Greene & Co.).

Image: Palabras Escritas by Angel A. Alphonso Castillo. Oil on canvas. 60 x 80 cm. 2010. By free license.