WORDS

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  The People in the Back

 

 

Burnside bridge

Face down on the concrete

warm to my skin and 

silent with another thousand voices

I heard the helicopter above me

the traffic below

and the wind blowing over our bodies

 

And then came the words

behind me

of voices

repeating

 

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe

 

Three words, hushed and face down

from the people in the back

Because it’s always the people in the back

of the bus

of the line

in a white person’s thoughts

 

I waited for the swell of whispers

to reach me where I lay

it ebbed before the words brushed my toes

before I too, could move my lips

on the concrete

 

Nine eternal minutes had passed

Shaken, I struggled to stand

breathed deep, and looked back

 To the rising wave of people 

behind me

and realized those whispers

were faraway shouts

 from the people in the back

 

Because it’s always the people in the back 

 

 

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                                                                 On Looking Downward

    

    With the exception of lightning storms, shimmering rainbows, and unusually low flying aircraft I rarely turn my eyes heavenward. I gaze at the sidewalk, searching for totems and talismans as I walk. Runaway pieces of daily life become magical as they escape from pockets and purses and notebooks and cars. Wedged into cracks or glued flat against the cement by rainwater, they trigger the part of me that wants to believe in some sort of higher power.  It doesn’t feel exactly like God, more like playful tricksters dropping windblown clues and advice. 

    The city’s scatterings are charms; the oddly shaped stone slides into my pocket where I decide it’s my “lucky rock” and I’m suddenly comforted by the coldness turning warm and solid against my thigh. A single earring is a small whisper, telling me I need to do something sweet for my wife because I’ve been stressed and distant lately.

    The worn scrap of paper covered with a stranger’s handwriting is a crumpled fortune just for me, minus the cookie. Once I found an actual Tarot card, face down. When I flipped it over the Queen of Cups looked me straight in the eyes, wordlessly telling me everything was going to be just fine. 

     Sidewalk omens require interpretation. What does a stray key mean? Security, or imprisonment? Is it heads up or face down that’s lucky? The note that said “ALL GIT YOU” in childish printing- a warning? Or a message to keep talking to my teenaged sons because someday they will “get” me? 

 

                    I never choose doom.

 

    I lost my wedding ring three months after my wife slid it onto my finger. I panicked, rifled through my car, my bag, my pockets. I retraced my steps; gym, post office, the library where I dropped off our ballots. My focus was so intense I began to have visions replaying my morning. I watched myself taking the ring off and sliding it into my wallet at the gym, I followed my ringless fingers pulling bills from my wallet and then tossing it into the glove box of my car. I saw my bare left hand carrying the ballots into the library. I mouthed these steps like a silent Rosary as I searched every sidewalk, gutter and curbside I’d walked over that morning, but it was gone. Just gone. 

 

    I wonder if the person who found my ring believes in the power that Godless humans attach to found objects. What history did they imagine when they spotted it in the damp crack between the street and the curb? Maybe they heard echoes of a heated argument and the “ting” as it was tossed from a moving car. When they bent down and picked my ring up, did the cold weight of it drag like a broken and lost relationship? Was it immediately buried in a pocket to keep my sadness from seeping in to their skin? Could my heart, bittered  by the loss of my most precious keepsake, pass this sense of  devastation on to theirs? 

 A sour little piece of me wished it could.

 

            But once again, I never choose doom.

 

    I need to believe they noticed the ring sitting atop some freshly mown grass, where a flirtatious spark of light caught their eye and turned their head. I imagine them lifting it skyward and looking through it at the Sun, feeling suddenly small and hopeful, like a child about to grow. I feel better when I picture them walking down the sidewalk, holding my ring close in their palm, sure and warm like a lover’s hand. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                              Farther North

 

 

 Me on my porch in the sun, banana Popsicle dripping sticky

 watching 

 a long moving truck trying to pull off a U-turn 

 in the space between our houses,

 squared off like prizefighters on

 either side of a dusty, pothole filled ring. 

 

 In the afternoon

 we rode our bikes in silent circles, until we came so 

 close to each other that one of us had to speak. 

 And then we were friends.

 

 We lived in the very last two houses in North Portland,

 on a long Boulevard that traced miles

 along a view-blessed bluff overlooking the Willamette river. 

 It passed fine houses, a private college,

 then ducked under a beautiful Gothic bridge

 before slowly whittling itself thin, 

 finally coasting softly, gravel under tires, to our dead end.

 

 A cyclone fence separated our houses from a field, a factory, 

 and train tracks that slowly rounded the curve towards the river.

 A water tower loomed over us like a human child 

 looking into a fishbowl.

 

 I looked at you and knew it was time to leave,

 so I poked the toes of my dirty shoes through the woven metal,

 and pulled myself over the barbed wire and into

 all the dangers Mothers imagine.

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On Bedrooms and Boyhood

the room in the new house is wallpapered 

checkered flags and

race cars circle the room around and around.

I stand in the middle of the empty room and spin, slowly

and the cars move

the flags snap in the wind

and I want to live in this room 

always, just like it is.

 

like a boy’s room.

The Queen of the Farmers Market

          He was taking a long time reading the wooden menu, the long list of sausages I was selling written neatly in chalk. When I said hello, he just nodded slowly and kept reading. 

 

          I had a lot of time to check him out. I’d guess he was about eighty, clean shaven, sitting in an electric scooter. His grey hair was tidily brushed back off his face, and his light blue shirt had perfectly pressed creases along the yoke and sleeves. On a thick silver chain around his neck hung a surprisingly large orb of golden amber streaked with erratic, artery-red lines. I followed the length of his slender arm to a wrist draped in bracelets of colorful glass beads stacked in a mosaic of pinks, yellows, bright blues and a shocking persimmon orange. On the hand below them he wore two silver rings, one on his thumb, and another on his middle finger. It was strange to see an old man wearing such modern jewelry.

 

          “I like your rainbow.” He said it soft and clear, like a password or a secret code. 

I looked at my Pride wristband, “Thank you. I like your bracelets.”

 

Slowly, still reading, he reached out and adjusted the beads on his wrist.

 

His delicate fingers reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a slim silver money clip.

With distant politeness, he said, “I will have the Chicken Feta, please.”

 

          He placed a twenty on the counter and I counted out his change, then snapped open a paper bag left over from another customer’s pickup order. Dropping the pack of links into the sack, I said brightly, “This has someone else’s name on it because I’m recycling it. Guilt free!” I held up the bag and read aloud “Julia Derby… Sounds like a drag name. Can you imagine her hat?”

 

          For the first time, he met my eyes. Lifting his chin, he raised an eyebrow.

 

          “Mine was Glory.” 

 

          The slight twang in his voice and the tilt of his head was that of a proud, catty Southern belle. His upswing didn’t last, and he sighed, looking at the bills in his hands. His voice lowered, back to his quiet, even tones.

 

          “My sister didn’t care much for me doing drag. After the accident, they moved me into an apartment and someone destroyed my drag things.”

 

          “She says she didn’t do it.” He reached for the bag and I leaned over the counter and passed it to him. 

 

          “But I think she did,” he said bitterly. He sat up taller and with a slightly curled lip his voice became Glory’s again. “She’s always been jealous of my beauty.”

 

          His silver ringed fingers pushed the lever and the scooter turned away, rolling slowly into the parting river of shoppers. 

 

          I called after him loudly, to be sure he heard me, “Goodbye, Glory!” 

 

          He raised his arm and waved back at me like a true Queen, his bracelets sparkling like sequins in the      sunlight.

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Sparrows and Starlings

                               

 

neighborhood regulars 

a welcoming committee with something to prove

picking apart the untested hipster

his tattoos of sparrows and the St. Johns bridge 

pretty and sharp, bright and clean

 

Where’d you go to school?

What street do you live on?

Where did you live before?

 

atop barstool perches, we sink our roots

in lengths of months or years,

not generations

our white faces smug when he explains

he’s used to a “rough” neighborhood

this neighborhood hasn’t been rough in years 

not for us, anyway

 

we stumble North to the corner store,

faded 7up sign glowing like mist in the dark

window ads for Newport Menthols and Yerba Matte 

mismatched offerings

us/them old/new black/white

 

like his parents, Charles likes to talk

from behind the cash register

family photos under the counter glass 

graduations and babies

Black men in barber shops

ancestors

 

Where’d you go to school?

Where do you stay?

Where did you live before?

 

do we all feel a twist of shame?

standing in the beer cooler’s spotlight

name-dropping places

knocked down and buried 

under hipster bars and coffee shops

as we were moving in

like starlings into stolen nests.

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Jesus in the Laundromat

 

A smallish Latino boy perches on a chair over a laundromat sink

leaning in, left hand full of long grey shoelaces,

right hand holding a gallon of bleach

to me, it looks precarious

but he is as calm as Jesus in the paintings

 

The bleach is heavy, his thin arm shaking as he

pours it over the laces in his hand, too much

spilling out, splashing up from the sink

he sets the bottle aside as if he doesn’t know 

it could have blinded him

 

bathing the laces under the running water, he

strokes them between his thumb and forefinger

the boy pulls down two paper towels, and carefully lays 

the bright white laces on them,

pressing them flat, like flowers in a bible