I come into his room, the old junkie, old
alcoholic with obscene tattoos caressing the ropes of his biceps.
Four-thirty on a winter afternoon, early darkness, I’m tired, don’t
want to hear any more wounds oozing their stories.
The soap operas spill from every lighted room
in this hospital. And here’s this guy,
his crooked inner arms hardened from years of slamming
heroin into them. I say, “No problem.
We’ll add it on so you won’t have to get stuck again.
Just sign if you want the test.” A clipboard gets passed
between us; his hands shake so
I wonder how anyone will read it. Scars and sores decorate
his shipwreck of a face. He tells me he killed a man once
when he was drunk, says he believes
angels walk among us because life
isn’t long enough to fix all our mistakes. “I figure the most
any of us has got is seven hundred months, give or take.”
We talk about him maybe getting off
drugs, booze, all of it. “I don’t think I’ve got
another recovery left in me,” he says. His hair, a thick horsetail curtain,
is gray. I look at his birthday number. He’s almost to the end
of those seven hundred months. “I tried and failed
so many times, I think God’s fed up with me.”
“God doesn’t get fed up, only humans. God’s not
like that,” I argue, hoping to believe it. “Yes,” he says,
looking out the window where the early-evening
angels are crowded, their cheeks burning
blue smoke, the winter angels. And the black ones
who ferry the body across the
underground river, and the golden angels of piss glinting in sunlight,
whose job is to announce
another ice-cold morning axed in half by a hangover.
There are angels for this, yes, and they can be beautiful
when young, the heroin angels — I’ve seen them in the sweetness of dream,
their smiles glowing, and the song of needles
singing inside their skin like a great swarm of enchanted bees.
Angels enough for everyone. I’m thinking how badly
we want what we want, all of us,
how we still hope for the angel
who will tell us what we need to know
in order to live, whether the word comes
in a lump of dog shit or a dropped pigeon feather,
always, in the end, there’s that glimpse of hope
we can’t let go of — a child’s sparkler,
bright, whirling, dangerous. It could burn you
if you reached for it. It could go out,
be swallowed in the open vault of blue-black heaven.
Oh, but the midnight skies are full
of other night-walkers carrying their tiny candles,
shielding them with a cupped hand the way a man
lying in a doorway struggles to light a cigarette.
Any moment now, he may look up.
STOLEN SENTENCES FOR ABRAHAM
Stolen: one dollar. By one small, skinny black boy
with sugar smeared on his face, white sugar speckling
the tough curls atop his head,
and eyebrows like exaggerated question marks —
Who, me? And me, one hurt white grown-up
with enough dollars to buy mountains
of candy, more than anyone
could want — Yes, you. How could you, Abraham?
So I kicked him out, barred him from my house forever
because I was mad, hurt, betrayed — That’s what I get for. . .
Only later, cleaning up the house, alone, still stomping with fresh,
throbbing self-righteousness, I remembered: “Property is theft,”
Phil used to say whenever I bumped
someone’s car and didn’t leave a note, or scratched the floor
of a rented apartment. Sometimes, as a young person, I stole — once,
I wanted a pair of pants that were too expensive, so I wore them
out of the dressing room under my own baggy jeans, under the
security guard’s nose. I’ve stolen Tampax when I was mad at the patriarchy.
I’ve certainly tried to avoid paying taxes. I’ve stolen time
at work to make personal phone calls, to write these poems — doesn’t everyone?
We learn early and harshly:
this is mine, that’s yours. And then we go through life taking and taking,
trying not to get caught. And one young
boy in front of my house — his people long ago stolen
from their homeland and brought here, labor stolen, language lost, children taken
from their mothers and sold — he’s kicking pebbles, “on punishment” already
for throwing a rock that hit his sister in the eye (though he
says he didn’t mean to), asking me, “Patty can come in, but I can’t? Why?”
“You know why.” “ ’Cause I stole?” “Yeah, and it made me mad.”
Elementary lessons. Abraham, I am late
myself in unlearning separation. Just what the hell
do I think I’m trying to teach you now, and what am I
teaching you, small, outlawed
piece of my heart, scuffing your lonely
bottle caps and insisting you didn’t do it, didn’t do it, didn’t do it?