J.S. Absher

   "There's no moment between human beings
                                     that I cannot record."
                                           —The character Bernie Moran in the
                                               Francis Ford Coppola movie
                                               "The Conversation"


I imagined old man Duncan could snap

the thumb of his good hand across the head

on a double sawbuck and tell who had held it—

grease monkey, reverend, beautician—as if

the paper had been inked with their souls.

When he was dying, he pulled Junior’s

ear to his lips, Only you under the stars

and under the sun can keep the thing going.

(Junior had to stoop to catch the words.

More tears in the old man’s eyes than his.)

The IRS is on to you-know-what:

their auditors have bugged our damned comptroller—

they’re grabbing for our balls. You have it all.

To keep it, little man, you’ll have to dance.


Junior found people worth knowing—a man

who showed him how to squirrel away his cash

into a nut so hard no auditor

could crack it; another, who could hide

a transmitter in the olive in a martini.

After a fifth of Junior’s shine, his tongue

grew eloquent: When the mark speaks,

the whole room resonates. All you have to do

is capture and amplify. When you’ve played

hours of scratchy tapes—through the white noise

of transistor hiss, then the softer static

of white filtered to pink in flickering circuits—

you’ll know the goddamn joy of catching

the little words needed to goddamn ruin a man.


Junior picked me out for something bigger.

We go back a ways, I knew your daddy,

you worked for mine. Are you ready

to quit dicking with your career? Junior

gave me his Italian shotgun, an over

and under engraved with two gold pheasants.

He gave me a Plymouth. Don’t sweat the expense,

you’ll need some elbow room to maneuver,

and cash is a cold-cock tool that spreads

the world as broad as a man’s needs.

Into my jacket pocket he slipped some money.

His right arm went across my shoulders,

he held my right hand in his left and whispered

in my ear drops of poison as thick as honey.


I lent money to Landreths, Clonches, Woodards,

their skin white as talcum, to black men liable

to come in, named the same, and make their answers

yes, sir, no, sir, like it says in the Bible:

When cash was in their pocket, the dark world

shone wet and lucent, a glassine envelope;

when money was in both pockets, the men swaggered

and whistled down 10th Street, inflated with hope,

the payback lurking where they couldn’t see it.

It was fine to be vice president of this,

to see the money spread out, steaming manure

on poor land, to see it catch on fire and heat

the county, like Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.

In it I stood, stoking it bluer, bluer.


Yellow ears were bursting from the shuck,

the morning fog was glowing in the sun,

when Junior found me, See these two transmitters?

He held his left hand out. I have just one

little job for you, then we’ll be partners,

stepping shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek.

I’ll keep you closer than my finger bone.

I drove through the roaring boom of traffic

to buy the batteries where no one knew me

by face or name. In a ceiling tile

of the office reserved for outside auditors

I used my pocketknife to cut a pinhole,

then climbed on the sink next door to shimmy

into the crawl space to plant the little bastard.


Later I drove to the river, played the last tape,

and listened: the shuffling of papers as the agents

traced and vouched cash. The clicking ten-keys.

A cassette tinkling country, Can’t sleep a wink,

that is true, then an old movie tune, Let’s

face the music. I pondered the muteness

of the stars, the silent spinning of the earth—

the vast listening of God who cannot stop

his ears against our racket. As I woke

the sky was whitening east to west and flushing

pink at the margin. I wondered (why hadn’t

I thought of it before?) what’s Junior’s done

with the second bug? I reached under the dash,

under the seat and mat. Then I reached in my pocket.


This morning, I heard a buzzing, like flies

around a carcass, whispers like corduroy on

corduroy, sifted meal sliding down itself.

Then a voice came from the dirt, Get up, John,

the birds wait. Even the children go

unafraid. I rose to the commotion

in the trees, the house full of strange

perfumes invited me to open the white

doors, to look at sleepers helpless in night

clothes, while their cold paws tunneled the stale

air of dreams.. The voice commanded, Go, dig

with the moles, find the wiring by which

a man can tap the green noise of the world.

Now my head crackles like a radio.

J.S. Absher (, has been an offset printer, missionary, bank teller, janitor, and records manager; sold mutual funds, surveyed scrub timberland, and taught freshman English in North Carolina, hospital reimbursement in Taiwan, and a course on the folk and literary ballad in Belize. His chapbook, The Burial of Anyce Shepherd, was published in 2006, and his work has recently been selected for publication in Visions International,, and Raving Dove. His son is a graduate student in math at NC State University. In his spare time, he dances with his girlfriend, Patti.

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