A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I The Bridge
When we were children
we would meet by the bridge;
you would take a folded paper
from your pocket and give it to me:
a poem, or a song lyric you loved.
I was excited by the paper; it was warm,
and wrinkled by your curves. As I read it
you would blink and smile. Under the bridge
we would talk for an hour, and stand together
in the creek kissing, cold water and sand
washing our ankles, our feet slowly sinking.
When we were children, the secrecy of kissing
was everything — the world began there,
for we had never been in love before.
Now the years have nearly doubled
and we spend our first night as lovers.
We call the children, and they are here,
kissing, while two strangers explore
the deliberate excitement of adults.
Your hair, still long and wild, is gray,
which stirs and fascinates me.
Later, when you sleep, I hold and watch you,
my arm across your breasts, and I am fully content.
This is a rare happiness: it is a readiness
for death that makes sense of life.
The children are let go, and in your sleep
you smile at their perfection.
II Saving And Waste
Outside my grandmother’s house,
now empty and simple, I help my parents
pull gray oaken boards from the shed
my grandfather built. My father uses the wood
for picture frames, and gives his brothers & sisters
photographs of the house. The wood is sixty years
old, solid, strong, and “never dressed,”
my father says.
He pulls the boards loose from one end,
and my mother holds them out while he crowbars
loose the center nails, then the other end.
On the ground I hammer the nails on their points,
then flip the board and pull them out.
Most of them are loose, pulling out by hand,
their passage smoothed by rust gone to powder.
A few are difficult even with a claw hammer,
resisting the undoing of work done well
so long ago. I toss them all into the shed
— now becoming a skeleton —
onto a pile of wood, broken tools and
things that will never be of use again.
I think about how much we waste,
how much we save,
and whether my grandfather could have guessed
the further use of what he built. My father
walks to the back of the shed, crowbar in hand,
and stops for a moment, his mouth slightly open,
for he is slightly surprised. The back wall
has many gaps; someone — his brother? —
has been here, and some of the finest boards
are already gone.
III The Names
We ride through my mother’s country,
and my father’s: I see the steps where
my mother sat and talked after class in
high school, 45 years ago. I’m shown the
intersection where my father had a flat tire,
and left the car to hitchhike to his wedding.
“It was easier back then,” says my mother,
“and of course he was in uniform.”
This is a country now of churches and
hunters, Thursday night bingo, alcoholism,
poverty, fast food, and family gardens.
There is what city people call a closeness
to the earth, and there is meanness and
bigotry. There is common sense, and a
sense of plainness in living day to day.
There is a bizarre growth of satellite dishes,
and new, wider highways pulsing nervously
with the commerce of rapid change.
My parents left this country
to make themselves over, near the city.
I left it all, floating, balloon-like,
to another side of the continent, but
riding through here I realize, with mixed relief,
that my tether has not been cut.
There is meanness, bingo, deprivation,
and red clay in my very blood,
and these toughen the stubborn heart.
We drive through a quadrant of Lutheran churches
and a wide plaza of tombstones on either side
of the road. I read the names of my family,
and their kin, friends, lovers & enemies
for generations: Eckard, Bowman, Fry, Miller,
Killian, Yount, and Campbell. The same names
appear again and again. Suddenly I feel the
tether tied right here, rooted at the level
of death, and through it I hear the muttering
of these names, and all the questions left
on the lips of the puzzled & persistent.
IV The Wedding
In the light rain,
beneath a lean-to of bamboo,
Win and Caroline honor the old tradition
in the casual, wistful way of our generation.
Win’s tone is didactic, for he has chosen to
officiate at his own transformation. The truth
of the matter rushes up in Caroline, sometimes
halting the poem she has chosen. Gathered on
the hillside are their family, classmates,
intimates & kindred souls; many are graying,
and we are all slowly falling within our bodies,
accepting our limitations, aging with humor,
humility, and the lyric fatality of Southerners.
As the party begins our frisbees and waterguns
come into play, bewildering older guests unfamiliar
with our rituals. Now we are training our children
in the same games, and they are more zealous and
studious than we. They cry more often. They have
more energy than flesh, and struggle for the control
that defines & frustrates their parents. Like
wild birds, these children are messengers of
pure creation, and their terrors are brief
but total. They are shrieking our song,
and unsettling us with tongues of the future.
Through the afternoon I am torn between
distance & devotion, the familiar moment of stress
between communion & observation that turns
lover into writer, friend into judge. When I sit
with Jessica, our ancient friends see a familiar
couple, and ask naturally if Zachariah is my son.
My answers, wry and pained, recall the confusion
of decisions taken desperately in youth.
When Zach’s father arrives, I am both relieved
and set adrift. The two of us talk with ease,
all things considered, and then Win, resplendent
in his inebriation, comes by to pat us on our heads,
bestowing his blessing, perhaps,
on such manfulness.
Zachariah calls, pointing with a fishing rod
to the space shuttle, a painted balloon floating
on the lake in tow to a cruiser controlled by radio.
This scene, I think, is suitably odd. A couple
retreats to the far side of the lake, attracting
the hoots and lewd cries of everyone else,
so then they moon us. The clouds break
and the sun lights up the late afternoon.
A young punk band sets up on the lawn, launching
into a raucous, pounding beat, but their Dixie roots
betray their rebellion, for they cannot help
turning out a sweet, obedient melody.
D. Patrick Miller