By John Van Dreal


At a divey place just off the sound, between Bellingham and 
Ferndale. A rich palette of neon lighting, booze advertisements, 
dozens of small TVs featuring sports and sitcom reruns filling 
the den—the bar owners have made the interior their canvas.

A sign reads, Fancy Beer Not Found Here. The tap is limited 
to Coors, PBR, Miller. Yellow ochre and black tinted cigarette 
burns and contoured bottle rings have etched the archaic Formica 
bartop to the backing board, creating architectural shadows of 
the past.  

Patrons’ arms are adorned with nicotine patches and poorly 
rendered, faded tattoos. No hopheads, no hipsters. The bartender 
knows everyone.

I don’t know anyone. I feel gawky, awkward—I ease my social 
discomfort with an overcooked cheeseburger and a third beer. 
A lady enters from the smoker’s porch, her body long and
calligraphically flowing from the restrictions of her skin-tight 
denim, tailed by the robust smell of stale, smoke-drenched aura. 
Taking it in, I fondly recall my grandparents, their home, their 
car and everything else they touched with their nicotine-covered 

I think of you and the keenness you had for unfiltered cigarettes. 

I miss you—

how you would flash an earnest smile at my awkward moments. 
You called it your rodeo clown smile because of your jagged 
canines that framed the vacant spaces once occupied by a few 
lost incisors. 

I imagine your ghost. Smiling, the teeth still snaggy and missing. 

This is your kind of place.

Five feet, eleven inches under

the surface. Stretched and on tiptoe, 
a desperate gasp for air. 
	Resisting the certainty of malignant malady 
	tugging him down and back into the earth.
out with waxen hands etched deep 
with wrinkles realized from six decades of toil and
farmer’s grind

for something—beyond me, beyond the ceiling—
something I can’t see. I can’t sense. 

Wild eyed—he calls a name I do not recognize. 
	A deity, a guardian?

Pushes, then pulls 
at the catheter—I gently, but assertively,
hold his hands away. 

	Where is God’s love, God’s comfort,
	when pain turns seconds to minutes,
	minutes to hours? If my anemic efforts 

	are to be that comfort by proxy, then 
	God is lower case g at best. 

At the end, five feet, eleven inches under 
the surface,
delicate, tentative, but something— 
holding him up. Holding me up . . . 
so we can anxiously reach to the heavens and
gasp for one more breath.


Standing a few feet from the edge of the counter, I watch the 
barista, cautiously eyeing his style and tattoos. I don’t want 
him to be aware of my study, but I am intrigued by his clothing 
choices, given his endomorphic build—baggy, gray denim 
trousers and generic white deck shoes, emphasizing his short 
legs; tightly fitting orange T-shirt with short sleeves that gather 
at his thick, yet barely defined deltoid muscles. 

From under the cotton material cinched at his shoulder, flows 
an inked image of a brilliantly colored hummingbird suspended 
upside down below a golden-red sunflower. A yellowish-gray 
spiderweb projects from beneath the bird, runs down his biceps, 
and transitions into an olive-green snake coiled around his 
elbow. Below the snake, just above his inner wrist, is an image 
of a mouse, rendered in cerulean blue and surrounded by a 
larger, faintly outlined ghostly image of a mongoose. 

I study the image for a few seconds. I think, The mongoose 
appears unfinished. The barista appears unfinished, or some 
might think so, yet he projects a confidence and comfort with 
his own physical traits—traits that others might consider 
flaws. Perhaps the mouse becomes the mongoose. Perhaps
the mongoose protects the mouse. 

I feel myself smile as I eye him from head to toe. I spent the 
early years of my adult life learning about what others thought 
of as imperfect—now I celebrate the idea of eliminating the 
distinction from my mind.

He notices my attention and nods, then hands me a ceramic cup 
filled with coffee and a dusting of cinnamon, tipping his arm 
outward to expose the ink and his purplish-blue arteries, visibly 

Man Crush

He smells like dirt, leather, sweat, and old tires.  
Skin blackened by the sun, teeth naturally bright. 
His eyes wrinkle into a smile that projects the 
wisdom of age mixed with the innocence of youth 
in anticipation of a holiday gift. 

An accidental minimalist, he is too distracted by 
his day to care about tangible possessions.

Has only a few trappings—aged leather bands and 
tarnished silver at his wrists, shells assembled into 
twine hanging from his neck, two ten-gauge wooden 
plugs in his earlobes, a few items of distressed 
clothing, and a sketchbook, filled with ink drawings, 
poems, and essays.

Unattached, he focuses his love on friends—The 
Greek term, he says, is philia, but he strives for 

Still, within this simplicity, he’s conflicted. At times, 
as uncomfortable in the open desert as he is inside a 
home, he searches for permanence but struggles with 
the expectations it brings. He cloaks his angst with 
impeccable manners, a deep interest in others, and a 
vivid presence when he is with another. 

People meeting him for the first time say, I swear, 
I’ve known him for ages.


At The Cup, sipping a breve down to the foam. 

at a laptop—returning an email to a friend who 
is struggling in a failing relationship. My note, 
weighted by telling reflections of my own botched 
couplings, causes me discomfort, so I turn to the
shop’s interior for a change of texture and focus. 
My search finds 

my image, mirrored in the stainless casing of the 
espresso machine. Behind it, a lanky, elegant 
barista piloting the valves, knobs, levers, and caps.
She glances

my way and smiles. I quickly, awkwardly, look 
away, outside through the lobby window—
I see 

	a raven-haired, olive-toned woman with 
	body exaggerating from hip-hugger jeans. 
	Her warm skin is decorated with a variety 
of tats. Three are colorful monikers to her 

		“Ixtapa,” in deep blue and purple.
		“Chicana,” in green and red.
		“Viva Mi Raza,” in green and gray.

She snaps at a Zippo, lights a hand-rolled 
cigarette, settles in at the sidewalk table.  

My thoughts return to the interior when the barista 
spins up a new playlist and bumps the volume, 

the speakers with Jamie Cullum’s sorrowful cover 
of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” The notion 
of failed romance returns my musing to the woman 
smoking shag outside, now joined

by a young man in full dress with just a 
hint of ink flowing from under his collar. 
They appear connected, familiar, intimate.
She affects 

a slow, French inhale, puffing the smoke in 
his face while shifting her seat to his lap. 
He gulps at the air, attempting to capture 
the remnants of her breath. Then, with four 

down her lower spine, imitating a credit 
card charge. She fidgets as if tickled and 

back into the window, a reflex to see if 
their provocative moves were witnessed. 
She catches 

my study and beams a smirk, then nods.

My optimism refreshed, I return to the email and 
consider infusing a fragment of hope into my 


I’m in Spokane. Four hundred miles away from you. It’s hot, and I drift in 
and out of sleep. My dreams turn to half-awake imaginings. This one sticks 
with me: 

We’re new to our relationship, and I’ve risked writing a poem about you. You 
smile and ask, “After you read me the poem, can we play that Twister game?”
I sustain a sigh until my lungs are empty. Follow it with a quick breath. “It’s 
just a draft. Remember that.” You nod. I fully inhale and recite:

	Fingers interlocked in a fleshy zipper, 
	ankles twined, she reclines.

	Eyelids cover
	cerulean pools as
	she blinks in
	slight exaggeration to
	express her point.
	All while she turns and tips her brow

	my way . . . 
	a quick stare.

	Sometimes a turned-up corner of
	her otherwise temperate mouth . . .
	a grin.
	Sometimes not.
	Always a slight blush.
	I pause, adjusting the effect. And
	drinking in

	I steal the glance . . .
	just to save it for later.


Leaning back, I cock my head to the side. I’m embarrassed. I question, 
“Maybe a little sentimental?” 

You stare. I can hear your deep breaths. You place my hand on your 
chest and rhetorically ask, “Too sentimental? My dear it’s perfect. And, 
Johnny, you already had me in the bag. Now . . . well, I’m way in the bag!” 
You shake your head to clear emotion, or awkwardness, or maybe pause 
the impending kiss. “Break out the Twister. I wanna try ‘right hand green, 
left foot red.’” 

I walk to the closet to dust off the goods and look back to catch you smelling 
each of your armpits in turn. You shrug and say something to yourself that I 
cannot hear. I return and splay the mat on the floor. You slide the shoulder 
straps of your sundress down, slightly restraining your arms, and slip your 
sandals off, kicking them to the side.

A third-generation artist, John Van Dreal began painting and writing at age seven. He earned his formal education in Fine Arts at Humboldt State University and Brigham Young University and educational psychology at Brigham Young University, maintaining careers in both fields while writing. A musician and award-winning artist with work featured in collections throughout the Pacific Northwest, Van Dreal uses his creative vision and accessible writing style to explore both the darker and quirkier sides of human behavior. He resides in Salem, Oregon and is currently composing his first novel.

One thought on “Ghost and Other Poems

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