All of us knew the old fool. Or didn’t know him —
it’s just that all winter we saw him out on our pond,
thin as a straw, with a stiff white moustache and sissy
rimless glasses, which he’d stop to clean on a shirttail
once he’d steamed them up by repeating his trick,
his one dumb trick. With his hands locked behind him, he’d glide
a while — and we admitted the old guy could skate —
then he’d go spread-eagle, his feet in a sort of V,
and cut a small circle. Then he’d go on and cut some others,
spin after slow goofy spin. He had the sense
at least not to wander out to our end of the quarry,
where we slapped at a scarred old puck and at each other,
boys somewhere between fifteen and seventeen.
That New Year’s Eve, after dark, which by then came early,
we made a fire on our shore out of sticks and fruit crates.
Somebody’d brought the beer and the puke-your-guts-out
sweet pink wine, so we all were well along
when the pageant started. Who put the show together?
We didn’t give a damn. We looked across
as first, some tiny figures flickered and staggered —
like images shown on a damaged movie reel —
past the neater fire that burned on the opposite bank:
kids, it was easy to tell, because they’d fall
unless their fat-ass dads were holding them up
from behind, hunched over, clutching their little elbows.
Next a few pairs of untalented elderly dancers
went wobbling by. There was corny, crackly music
from a record player some parents had rigged somehow.
We hockey players snickered at the finale:
that skinny old man, in what looked like a Zorro suit,
complete with cape. Holding some sort of stick,
he went to the fire, where he spun in his usual way,
and in the process lit that thing in his hand.
He moved to a smudge pot, spun to light it too,
then on to eight more pots that somebody’d put there.
Who’d have done that? It didn’t matter. We sneered
at the watchers’ oohs and aahs, which reached us there
where we stamped our feet and knuckle-punched each other.
We got the idea: he was playing the Village Lamplighter
or some such idiot mush.
He must have been dead
for years, and I have children much older than we were.
All of which means that when in recall
I behold the old man’s pivots and spins again,
and the pots he left out there in their glowing circle,
a wonder and beauty kindle that didn’t back then.
Back then it must have been hard
for Nick to work in that shop,
his father-in-law’s garage.
He was my longtime friend;
his side of the story was my side.
He always seemed to confide
in me for some unknown reason.
He’d shake my hand when I stopped in,
which old Yankees just don’t do.
So I knew about the ulcers,
though Nick wouldn’t see a doctor.
Stoic, stubborn, country.
Or no, I didn’t know.
No one learned what it was
that killed him until it killed him,
which made me remember that once
I’d caught him clutching his gut,
leaving a torque wrench to rattle
and dance on a fender a moment,
as if that were some sort of trick.
Nothing but heartburn, he claimed,
turning aside my questions,
turning to what really hurt him:
how his wife and three young sons
obviously favored her father,
while Nick was the one who worked
every straight night and day
to keep the family going —
including that same father,
who lounged indoors on a couch,
a man so goddamned stupid,
as Nick would often complain,
he don’t even know how to ache
whenever he’s in pain.
He ached for absolutes
but life remained a woeful riddle.
He left it behind. No note.
An empty vial. Snarled sheets and quilt.
He had no family anyone remembers.
As if someone consciously tricked him,
the world showed him only encrypted symbols,
which at last he grew tired of decoding,
or tired of not knowing how.
My thoughts about him are, of course,
themselves a sort of decoding,
though I knew him well. Or I thought so.
Who knows anyone, really?
No doubt it’s trite to wish there’d been
something I might have said.
Should I have offered my witness, say,
to joy in the flow of the normal?
In seasons coming and going? In birds
that launch themselves to migrate
or settle? I look outdoors just now,
earth unveiling itself
toward spring. Above the river, a throng
of snow geese. I also hear the chirring
of nervous, deft red squirrels.
These phenomena mean nothing
beyond my desire to assign them meaning,
if that describes what I do
with such quiddity. Fact is,
I miss the man, for all his endless
contemplation of life’s conundra —
endless and useless. I shudder too,
appalled by my own imagination,
in which he wakes again
to this little town he lately abandoned,
gone quiet after heavy snow,
even the letters on postal boxes
in a script he doesn’t know….
Ross went out to to fish Mud Lake
And flipped his truck that night coming back.
You could read almost all of his life in the wreck:
In the upside-down cab, perch flipping in booze
From two broken fifths in the torn brown sack,
Torn Powerball tickets floating there too,
And mouldy Kentucky Fried Chicken bones.
He landed head down among those scraps,
Not hurt. His license was already gone.
A new DUI, not that I was counting.
I’m his friend, whatever that shows
About either man. I don’t have no fucking
Problem, Ross says, except Everybody
Sticks me under a microscope.
He’s got no problem. It’s the cops and juries
And judges who do. They know the names
Of his wife and his ex, and both women know
What’ll be what when Ross wades home.
If you can believe it, one time from jail
He made his free call to 911.
He told dispatch he was being held
Against his will by desperate men,
And every one of them packing a gun.
Why can’t anyone leave him alone?
I wish my friend’s wild escapades
Were all as goofy as that one with the phone —
Not stomping some other barfly’s face,
for instance. He had it coming! Ross shouted.
I cussed Ross out, I called him a turd,
I told him again he better dry out.
Ross just repeated, I got no problem.
I long for a way to get him on board,
So I prod him about the wife and the children.
Ross’s new marriage is sinking fast.
I doubt it, but that’s a thing that might
make Ross see his life for what it is:
A sea of whiskey. Ross keeps doing time.
Short time so far. I dream of him dry.
It has to be hell to live like him.
He’s in a fishbowl, and people are spies.
That’s what he thinks, though we see him come
From 20,000 leagues away.
You know the way it is. Shit happens,
as the saying goes. Things were over that summer.
We’d split the custody of our children.
That puny circus was back in town,
I took the kids, and there in the stands
Leon sat with a group from the home.
I thought my life was hell in those days,
but Leon’s example should have cured that moping.
He had to deal with a lot more than I,
and no end in sight. When I waved, he smiled,
I think. One side of his face wouldn’t bend.
By now he’d had his condition a while.
The three of us watched some hay-belly ponies,
unshod and shaggy, shamble around
the single ring. Their one and only
trick: to stand on two legs. They did it
a dozen times, then trotted out.
Leon’s companions appeared to love it
and stood up too, the ones who could,
and cheered. I saw Leon move his lips
and I knew exactly what he said:
Yes, his only word since it happened.
A man came to clean up after the ponies,
same bastard who’d loudly counted my children
— just two, a boy and girl, after all —
when I showed my tickets. He’d come again later
for some ham-fisted juggling with clubs and balls.
Happy? I asked my daughter and son.
Puzzled, they nodded. I pictured Leon
outside a shed, a pail in each hand,
nodding his understated hello
as I drove by his farm. Even well, he was modest.
I tried to forget him again all through
the acts that followed: the clowns, the strongman,
the acrobats, the contortionist.
For the children’s sake, I played optimist,
saying Yes to everything, just like Leon.
I said yes to myself as I passed the trailer,
yes to the cans and shards
and dead toaster’s remains all clearly just flung
through the doorless doorway
yet seeming somehow arranged
among clots and clinkers and rocks.
My life has been distilled to details,
but has been on balance exquisite,
no matter it’s I who insist so.
I recalled the unlikely whiteness
last spring of a weeping crab
beside that so-called mobile home,
framed by its bashed-in picture window,
beyond which, inside the shell,
to be sure, a deep, discomfiting darkness.
Leaning now against a wild apple,
sleep settling into my bones,
I remember all this, ignoring blood
on one of my thumbs from my careless
grasp of a thorn-bush to help me up
the steepness to here, where it’s getting on dark.
I can’t stay all night,
though apart from arousing concern
in family and others who’d care,
I wonder where would be the harm?
October’s not cold, I don’t feel pain,
my beads of blood are strangely pretty.
In a clearing halfway up,
I came on a predator kill: ruffed grouse,
subtly luminous plumage
made a trick of the light, almost a pattern.
Nothing — no beauty, no good in a life —
ever comes for free.
A barred owl starts its eight-note chant,
far enough off to sound plaintive, not clownish.
Others might hear all this and say it:
A life like that is hardly exquisite.
Maybe I’m the clown:
these redundant climbs, my hikes and rambles
with no ends beside themselves,
which will end one day.
Each to his own,
but if those mockers had come up with me
they might in time remember
the ivory shower of last May’s crab,
or even the junk, or the grouse’s feathers,
or how twilight tonight
sneaks smoothly along toward no light,
soft odor of evening falling,
a tempting drowsiness too,
all of the grander themes died down.
They might remember the curious privilege
of hearing a solitary apple
make a sudden gentle thump
here on good ground.