The woman behind the front desk,
who is quick to call any man handsome,
once told me
after she’d seen a picture
(curling at the corners, becoming indefinite at the edges, in the background)
from your marathon years
or your Navy years
or some other years
before this year
of kittens and pornography
not sleeping through the night
sitting alone in the dark, the early morning
out in the county
where there is hardly a sound at 3:00am
before you didn’t sleep for days
on the long trip north
to go see your mother
dance ‘round the living room
to some song she used to like
to bicker with your remaining brother
your last brother
the good son, the one who didn’t kill himself,
who stayed alive, stayed home, became impatient
and complained to you
about the mess of her eating,
the food falling out of the mouth
that sang you to sleep
before you got on the bus
before you were the far away son, the runaway son
the man who left the kittens
in these stupid mountains
that were never your home
because you wanted to tell your mother goodbye
when you thought
she would be the one
to die first. You were handsome, before all that.
To tell you her life story,
she’d crawl under that low table,
tuck into a ball,
duck walk crawl,
lay down flat-bellied
on the nubbed-out carpet
Smelling dirt and plastic,
the cold of the concrete in the floor seeps up.
She’d tell about watching
small hands fidget,
rising and falling from tabletop to chair
elbows pressed close to bodies
and feet hooked ‘round the legs of chairs,
scuffing, rolling toes.
Air too warm,
like sleeping breath.
Thick buzz of sound and light,
voices, thin windows in the corner
green grass between buildings,
hard look of brick.
Nothing at home was made of brick
except the bottom part
of her great-grandmother’s house
and old fallen chimneys out in the woods,
from people that’d been there before,
after the other people who had been there.
You felt quiet
still and cool in the yellow white light
the cinder block room
eyelashes curled up silky and black
butterfly mouth, proboscis
a word you’d never heard, did not know
skin, the river bank
right hand was resting on the edge of the table
thumb feeling out the line from top to side,
the formic seam
some pages flat and silent
droning layer in the air
heavy over the room of round tables
Your hand drops to the edge of the chair,
under the table, into the shade
feels along the hard yellow
lean the body forward, hold to the silvery leg
She felt a crawling toward,
hand under the table
only a foot away
surprising how easy it is
for hands to find one another,
familiar clasp, palm across palm
fingerprints like the river we grew up on
hot and dry, the dock railing in the summer sun
There’s no way she could tell,
and no reason she’d need to,
because you felt it, too
the cold of that grasp,
adult hand like air conditioning
smooth and bloodless
the pulling the warm creatures curled together
up into the bright of the room above the table
lifting the holding hands like some dead thing,
some sad thing.
“You will not,”
voice from behind, from above,
before they knew what was happening,
hands still clasped together,
dumb and silent in the air,
because what can a child’s fingers speak,
“hold hands with,”
a swift outward pull, uncoupling the grasp
breaking the hold
set the hands firmly onto the table,
issue the declaration
that tells the story of who they are,
“little white girls.”
To tell you her life story,
she’d have to crawl down on the floor,
hands and knees,
and tell you that she knows:
This isn’t her life story,
in the way that it is yours.
Old Boy, swallow your bullets
let the lead
sit in your belly
that weight like an anchor
holding a Bloated wood hull
right offshore, right offshore
You old boys, with wagging tongues
and shotgun shells
your backroom meetings
dirty hands, the salt of the earth
all its bones, all its marrow
caught under your nails
You old boys, don’t think that I don’t know you.
I came from you.
Old Boy, don’t you burn no churches ’round here
don’t you burn no crosses
because I know who you are.
I came from you.
All the sheets in the world can’t hide the truth
of who you are.
I can see right through them.
You’re pink and soft, trembling and damp.
You’re scared, Old Boy.
You’ve always been scared.
So, you just swallow those bullets that you’ve been saving up
in the name of your own daddy
in the name of your own greatgrands
and the slow death
of the world they taught you to believe in
You just let that lead sit there in your belly
like the weight of everything you came from.
or, better yet, throw those bullets out into the river,
and listen to the sound they make
when they break the surface
setting all those old ghosts free.
In the thick ribbon of sucking tires
The shimmer of the earth ground to twinkling dust gathered at the barrier seams as snow that swirls and hushes at the edge of the roar I travel in insulated and absurd under grinning proclamations of injury and payout, promises of justice and redemption spelled in bright red, bright yellow As I travel to retrieve you by means of this road, which is not the only road, but is the quickest, despite my slowing, despite the impossibility of passage that mounts at the cloverleaf, the junction, the joining of major channels all witnessed blithely by the Waffle House that has turned into a We Buy Gold, announcing in familiar block black letters the eventual way of everything around here.
And you are landing as I stall under the reluctant sunrise that slow sighs a dull orange across the stunned oaks that pull to the forest that surely the fibers of their cambium remember as sweet water and blessed breeze the air pulling at stiff leaf and nimble green branch, up, up, into the air
As you come down, as stunned as the oak into all this mess from the bliss of empty spaces and open sky, only to see me, to come home to me and I know, in the early morning that I have near forgotten, that to have a home to return to makes the departure possible, defines, in fact, the adventure as something other than just a sad wandering away from something that does not love you, that cannot love anything, not even the gold it buys with the payout, even the triumph of the super highway, even the majesty of the unseen oaks sliding by as I get a little closer to welcoming you home.
I drove two thousand miles
to find you in a parking lot,
to walk over slickrock with you,
to eat eggs
in the places where people used to live,
but don’t live now,
those canyons filled with echoes
I didn’t know
that I was supposed to meet another man
in another parking lot
while you fumbled for directions
with weak data.
Maybe I was?
Maybe I wasn’t.
In any event,
there were 9 ravens in the sky,
and a white bird like a hawk,
maybe a golden eagle,
like we saw a couple of days later,
in that Cortez parking lot,
drinking melted ice cream,
that warm day when the dog died,
right before my father’s birthday.
I held the drunk old man’s hand
listened to him talk about:
how long her hair was, how he wakes in the night and cries, his daughter that is off to war in Afghanistan, how he used to jump out of planes in the dark, was just a body falling, before he came home to be a Navajo again, before he ever knew that he would wake up at night thinking about the war, would drink himself to sleep for years…
I think we said a prayer together?
I gave him my phone number,
and he gave me a rock.
He never called.
At least I don’t think he did?
I don’t know.
I hardly answer the phone anymore.
I still have that rock.
It’s in the box
in the back of the car
with my cobra pin,
the one I carry for good luck
and for protection.
There was that other man, in Cortez,
begging money for a friend,
also with a face
that spoke of ancestry and alcoholism,
saying, “It’s cold out here tonight,
he’ll freeze to death.”
You were in the store buying ice cream.
I gave him three dollars.
I should have given him my blanket.
If you didn’t really want to die
they will hold you down
if you didn’t really want to die
they will not speak to you
only to each other
small talk with the syringe from one hand to another
like a shaker of salt
at a lunch table
that you won’t be sitting at
and in that moment
you die a little
you didn’t really want to die
the door locks behind you
people come and go
and the light is thin through
always the same behind glass
you don’t even have shoelaces
so you don’t slip
your way into line
if you didn’t already
want to die
They don’t tell you what it does and so you stop asking.
You swallow the pills
because you have to
and you wonder,
why you want to die now, when you didn’t really want to die before
when, really, you were
just trying to explain that it was hard to live