Study in Black & White (from the upcoming Deaths & Transfigurations: Poems)
Seven days a week, six till ten,
my father & I ran the Sinclair station
across from the county courthouse in Mineola.
Between customers I pored over The Greatest
Story Ever Told and Amboy Dukes
or worked out back among the jewelweed
& cinders, swabbing ballbearings in kerosene,
as I gloried in all I would in time become.
Late April, early May. The trees trembling
for the sun's caress. Hummed the papers
daily now of the noose grown tighter
round Dien Bien Phu. Black & white photos,
ghostly, dreamlike, with black-pajamed Viet
Minh sappers storming trenches, as elite
French paratroopers, bloodied, dazed, surrendered.
I was fourteen then, and stood ready
to take on evil wherever it should rear
its swollen head, not unlike the Archangel Michael
whose eight-foot statue hovered high above
the marble-white gothic altar at Corpus Christi.
Armored like the boy-god Augustus Imperator,
his bronze spear tormented the snarling serpent.
Only Butch, who lived behind the rusting diner
two doors down in his '41 wood-trimmed Chevy
wagon up on blocks, cared nothing
that the world my G.I. father had helped
make safe was already breaking down.
Butch spent himself poring over comics,
small ones, black & white, in which Wimpy did
forbidden things to Olive. In all weathers,
buried beneath a filthy army-issue olive blanket
flanked by whisky flasks & yellow newsprint,
the palsied body shook. But who knew anything
about Butch really? Where he came from or later
where he went? My father warned me away from him,
and when I asked him why, stared down at me
in utter disbelief. Could any son of his
be this goddamned stupid, he shook his head,
and still walk upright the face of God's sweet earth?
This was forty years ago, so that by now Butch
has surely returned to the same dust from which
we all once sprang, his end coming in some alley,
or one fine morning not waking from the backseat
of his car, carbon monoxide leaking into his final
dream of love to resurface here in memory defanged:
thinning hair slicked back, the toothless grin,
the right hand grasping the palsied left,
to hide the shaking as he sized you up, a face
you'd recognize in any bathroom mirror,
the poor forked mortal trembling thing itself.
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