Archive for the ‘Prose poems’ Category
He was one of the soft-spoken, the strong, the sandy-haired — one who always preferred to be alone.
His name was Markus, a dishwasher at age 45.
He was a drifter, a loner, and he valued his freedom above all. Dishwashing jobs he could always find.
Our paths crossed and re-crossed at the Café Claire, where I was tending the bar. The Café Claire stood on the outskirts of an industrial town, near the railroad tracks, beside his temporary home. Sometimes he’d sit at the end of the bar, before his shift or after, and drink black coffee. Sometimes he’d speak to me, and sometimes he would not.
He was a tidy man, and orderly. He organized things in an oddly geometrical way. He did not drink, he did not smoke, he did not use drugs. He was clean-living and in good shape, neither depressed nor its opposite.
He was single, without children. And he was free.
He read a lot — novels and non-fiction — to endure, perhaps, those knives of lust that can so suddenly strike. He had the quietude of one who has gone a long time without sex.
His home was an efficiency apartment — a “hutch,” he called it — with good plumbing. (This mattered to him.) He dealt only in cash and he was good with his money. He saved, he moved on. Sometimes he worked on farms, sometimes he loaded and unloaded freight, sometimes he carried hod. But when I first met him and asked him what he did, he said “I’m a sudsbuster.”
So in the way of things, he would come behind my bar at times, when I was busy, and without asking me, he’d wash my glassware. I loved him for that. He was fast on his feet and knew how to work around people, so that nobody was in anybody’s way. Buried in Bloody Marys and margaritas, I’d glance over and see him plunged up to his elbows in suds, his gold-rim spectacles, which somehow endeared him to me, filled with the burning bar light, his neat goatee damp with perspiration and pied with skeins of gray. Working with someone in this way creates a kind of bond.
Two or three times, I saw him outside work while I was in my car. Each of those times, he was walking alone along the railroad tracks, at dusk like some solitary figure carved from the coming dark. This was a grizzled landscape, a prairie desert of Euclidian perfection, full of rings and radii, vast yet traversed by a single road: an isolate highway humming day or night with Mack truck tires. The wind ferried tumbleweeds across the lion’s pelt land, and deadwood everywhere stood silvery-gray, like the moon above, and invariably whenever I saw him, a feeling of melancholy came over me, a melancholy for him, I am not sure why. This, though, is not about pity or pathos, and Markus was not a person to be pitied.
This, rather, is about one man out of many millions making his way
in the land of the free, the USA.
He’s a long-haul trucker, he’s over-the-road. He earns good money and does not spend. There’s something of the ascetical about him. He’s forty. His hair is long. He wears jeans and combat boots. Sallow and haggard, his face is handsome nevertheless. His willowy wife does not ride with him but stays at home. They have no children. The wife is solitary, long-legged and tan. She has a ponytail of sandy-brown. She smokes Marlboro’s. They do not rent but own. The wife spends hours in her garden, or she reads in her backyard. Her eyes are pensive. She waves to us but rarely speaks.
The trucker who lives next door arrives at unexpected hours, on unexpected days. Emerging from his rig, he has the leanness of a desert prophet about him. I imagine him eating very little while he’s out on the road. He transports the goods from north-to-south. He hauls the freight from coast-to-coast. He kisses his wife in the driveway. They hold hands and enter their tidy cottage together. They shut the door behind.
Sometimes, on holidays, his rig will sit for three or four consecutive nights along this residential side street. It sits gleaming in the dark. The trucker loves his rig; it is his home away from home. Once, in the middle of the night, I heard a gentle noise outside and crept up to the window. The trucker who lives next door was polishing his semi in the moonlight. The semi is midnight-blue and chrome.
Here on the ragged edge of this desert town where the ancient railroad tracks lie rusting in the grass, the frontiers begin. These are the frontiers the trucker crosses and re-crosses year around. Our town is like many western towns, with its looping river and cauliflower clouds, its one Masonic lodge and the hard clean skies above, and in the distance, fields of clay where woolly mammoth and dinosaur once knelt down in the soft earth to die, and a billion bison bones fossilize in the ground. Beyond the backyards, the interstate curves off into the intricate horizon, and the distant cars make very little sound.
Another nobody kid raised in a half-broken home in middle America: a drunk father who worked twenty-five years for Clayton County, and a mother who loved you but was always too passive, it seemed, to truly care.
Yet you were inherently happy. Your smile burst across your face like a star shell. Happiness was in your bones, your blood, your ectomorphic body, not tall, but a natural-born athlete from head to toe.
The college coaches all went crazy for you, but your test scores were poor. You never quite made the grade. You joined the military instead and served as a gunnery sergeant in the war: a gunner, a dead-eye.
And when you shook the high school rafters that late-autumn night, scoring seventy-eight points, shooting twenty-for-twenty in the second half, both sides of the bleachers erupting for your grace, the purity of your touch, your form, the achieve of, the mastery of the thing — you were beautiful.
When you won the 100 yard dash and the 220 against all the big-city boys, edging out by fractions two future Olympians — you were beautiful.
When, at thirty-two, you lied about your age and won a tryout with the Denver Nuggets and made it down to the final cut, still going strong, still a gunner, a sniper from the three-point line, then busted your ankle in a fall — you were beautiful.
And are you beautiful still in your oil-stained clothes, turning wrenches at the garage, your thin black fingers spiderlike among the parts? Do you still have that delicate touch?
Are you beautiful with your scuffed-up knuckles and your immutable smile, your snaggly teeth and skeletal face?
Are you beautiful in those filthy hightop sneakers and that jumpsuit mechanic uniform, your chocolate slab of forelock hanging lank across your cheek?
Are you beautiful in your small hometown, moving into middle-age, still so thin, so graceful-looking, filling in part-time at the cowboy hat store? Is your uncanny coordination fading with disuse? Your infallible sense of direction and time?
I saw you once, not long ago: you were drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup on the fire escape of your tenement building. It was the middle of August. You wore a white tanktop and pleated gray slacks. You looked very elegant. The day was dying. The trees beyond stood iron-black against the sky. The staircases along the outer buildings were duplicated in isometric shadows across the orange brick walls. I was visiting a woman who lived across the street, and I watched you from her kitchen window. You sat on those metal steps for a long time. The sky flared and then emptied out into a draining reef, a reef of green. Darkness came. The first stars appeared. Still, you sat. You sat and sat, and after a while, the stars began to shoot and fall.
His name was Neil. He’d been a miner most of his life. He chewed Copenhagen and played guitar (he loved hard rock). In Vietnam he’d been awarded the Silver Star for an act of great courage.
After the war, at twenty-five, he went to work in a uranium mine outside Moab called The Gentleman Sloan. Two years later, he moved into the coal-mining country of east-central Wyoming. Then, at age thirty-one, he drove down to the spiky mountains of southwestern Colorado and began working in a gold mine called The Equity, which is where he remained for the rest of his life.
His end began suddenly, less than ten months ago, when he was only fifty-nine-years-old. He found, one unforgettable evening, a terrifying eruption of crystal-like growths all along his ribcage. His doctors punched cylindrical core samples out his skin. They drilled him full of holes and loaded him with tubes like tiny sticks of dynamite, blasting caps of pinkish-blue. Cancer is what they found. Cancer blooming like clusters of quartz everywhere beneath his skin.
The strangeness of this was not lost on him: that something so small could take down a man his size — a man so living and vital, a man, in short, like him. He hadn’t expected to go this way. He thought his end would come in the cold dark caves among the echo-drip of black water, or from blacklung.
Or perhaps on his way home from work one star-sprent frozen night, a wall of white would come pounding down out of the galactic blackness above, building in a moment a skyscraper of snow atop him and his jeep. But it had not been so.
Enraged, he cursed at first. And overnight his skin went totally slack, the flesh about the bones — a padding — melting like candlewax. His temples grew indrawn, clustered with silver veins. For reasons the doctors could not explain, the cave of his mouth began to morph so that his palate became a ceiling of ribbed rock, tasting of sulfur and sprouting miniature stalactites of limey tissue, or bone. The gold-and-copper of his hair, which had lasted him his whole life, now faded to galena threads, threads of winking lead.
Over the years, the mines exacted heavy tolls upon his health, as mines so often will. A chronic cough plagued him the last decade of his life. He had poor blood circulation, his veins dying like underground streams inside his skin, and his skin, from head-to-toe, transparent, mica-thin.
Twenty years previous, on a cold autumn morning, while he was exploring an abandoned shaft, he was brought up short by an iron fist clenching inside his chest; it sent him running back in the direction he had come. He’d barely made it. Lack of oxygen, they said, had caused a small heart attack. Thereafter his “ticker” (as he termed it) was never again the same.
And who could forget the time, early on in his mining career, when a stone slab the size of a boxcar busted loose from the low rock ceiling above and mashed him face-first into the soggy ground. He lay like that for two days and two nights, unable to move at all, while his headlamp subsided into ultimate black, and he, half-delirious, heard the whole time the purling of underground streams rocking gently by. This, he thought, is it — this is how I die.
His rescuers told him later that the softness of the earth and the freezing cold had, in part, saved him, but mainly, they whispered among themselves, it was the sheer strength of his will, and the strength of his muscle and bone.
Still, for all this, he loved his work. He loved the whole lifestyle, loved it with his body and soul. He loved the sound of sluicing water, the smell of wet mineral and adamantine stone. He loved the vitreous air where he worked (and worked), the air itself exuding sparseness, the reek of ozone and pine. He loved the sandy tailing ponds, their poisonous waters, the sound of the ravens grokking at him from the firs all around the mine, and the firs themselves stunted and dark and weird, crepitating with human-like moans. He loved all the magpie and the chipmunks and the fat brown marmots — “whistle pigs,” he called them — sunning themselves in the sharp western sunlight the short summers long; he loved the arsenic-burned rocks they scorched their bellies on.
He loved the massive gray shadows that tilted the ground, and the white dusty earth that the ubiquitous mountains cast their shadows upon.
He loved Sugarloaf peak in spring, with its necktie of mist and wig of snow, and the ragged mountains beyond poking the sky — and that sky forever, in his memory, tarnished like zinc, or a verdigris stone.
The rarified air he could never get enough of: the glassy gales in autumn and the mean winter wind pouring down from the milky sky above, rushing through the conifers in sporadic bursts and blowing the black cliffs bare of vapor and snow, showing naked chines of rock — rock everywhere, the smell of rock, rock rearing up into the high-altitude air, angular walls all along the roads that led up to the mines.
To him this was worth ten years of life.
And his life was not yours, or mine.
Our final meeting came on my last day of work, before I moved out of the San Juans for good. He was just coming on shift, swing. He stood at the entrance of the shaft, half turned away. A long shadow from the mouth of the cave fell diagonally across him, and in his hardhat and yellow slicker, the hard rock miner looked like one about ready to fight fires, or cyclones. His headlamp was not turned on yet. His boots were covered in year-old muck; his gloves poked partially out his bib. For some reason, then, I do not know why, he turned to me and waved goodbye. Then he swiveled back around and lumbered alone into the black dripping shaft, where no light shone at all, and then he disappeared forever from my site,