We Must Love One Another or Die: A Brief History

Valentine for a Homely Couple

Carl’s wife sits shotgun in his truck
Her doughy face baked whitish red.
He gets out and climbs the semi–
Smiling, he asks “How’s it going?”
We just grunt and nod our heads
at the auger hole, and how it’s stuck.

“Better you than me, boys,” he says.
“I’m enjoying Sunday off.
Got a beer and my old lady.
It ain’t much, but it’s enough.”

Bill and me look at each other;
He’s the type to make a crack.
Me–I just want to get this load done.
We’ve got 18 miles to drive back.

“Your wife, she sure is lookin’ sweet,”
Bill says–I don’t pay him no mind.
Carl’s wife smiles, then she says thank you.
“You ever seen her walk the streets?”
Carl asks, all innocent.  “From behind
Looks like two hogs fightin’ under a sheet.”

Carl’s wife laughs, she likes attention.
Backhanded flattered, and it shows.
Her flabby arm hangs out the window
What attracts him, God only knows.

“Have you lost weight since I last saw you?”
Bill asks, and then he calls her “Dear.”
“Naw,” Carl says, “she’s like the State Fair–
Bigger and better every year.”

We see her laugh, she’s missing one tooth.
It’s clear she’s heard this joke before.
Old Sam arrives to check our progress–
It’s his dough that we’re wasting now.
He kicks a dead mouse out the barn door
As we prepare to tell untruths.

“Howdy, Carl,” Sam says
surprised to see his foreman in the bay.
“I give you the day off and what do you do?
You just can’t tear yourself away.”

“You know my wife, Earlene–right Sam?”
Carl says with somewhat misplaced pride.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
Can he be pleased by one so wide?

They talk of things, while in the trailer
Bill and I unclog the jam.
The fescue seed begins to flow
As if from out a hydro dam.

Carl takes his leave, with mock regret.
“Sorry to see you break a sweat,
I’ll keep a cold beer waiting,” he says,
“In case I haven’t drunk it yet.”

Carl starts his truck, Sam farts around,
He sticks his hand into the seed.
“This stuff’s too wet, it’s got to dry out,
A day in windrows is what it needs.”

Sam stands up straight to watch them go.
“That little peckerwood’s a card.
Before too long they’ll have them six kids
And a beat-up truck in their front yard.

“I know that it ain’t none of my business,
where ole Carl puts his prick.
But for me, I know one thing;
Them Bohunk women sure go to pot quick.”

Image result for couples country 50s

We’re silent, Bill and I, for once,
as we attempt to take this in.
It’s true, of course, there’s no denying,
and yet to say it seems a sin.

Happy the man, and happy the mate
Who care not what the world may say.
Here’s to the two whose matches are few–
May they find love on Valentine’s Day.

The Ox Who Broke Susanna Martin’s Spell

            John Allen of Salisbury testified that Susanna Martin put a curse upon his cattle, saying they “should never do him much more Service.” Allen replied “Dost thou threaten me, thou old Witch? I’l throw thee into the Brook,” whereupon Martin flew away. He headed home but unyoked his oxen when one grew tired and put them on Salisbury Beach. A few days later it was found that the oxen had run into the Merrimack River and come ashore upon Plum Island. The cattle resisted attempts made with “all imaginable gentleness” to herd them back and swam out into the ocean “as far as they could be seen,” but one swam back “with a swiftness, amazing to the Beholders, who stood ready to receive him, and help up his tired Carcass.”

            Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft, Being the Wonders of the Invisible World

I know the waters off Plum Island—
they are cold and likely to shock
even beef flesh out of a witch-induced
distemper, but why you alone?

While the others swam on,
cursed for their master’s refusal
to carry a few staves for an old woman,
you came to your senses and swam back to humankind.

They tried to help you out of the water,
but you ran off through the marshes
to Newbury, then into the woods,
and then into Amesbury.

When Allen had brought you the four miles
home, and bedded you down in the
stable, did you then dream of late, lost
bewitched kine kin, now drowned in madness?

 

Or did you envy them their exploits and
their unwonted courage, how they’d chosen
the moment of their death at the behest of a fallen angel,
rather than wait for the blow of the butcher’s mallet?

Where Are the Karens of Yesteryear?

The Megans, the Caitlins, the Courtneys
come blissfully marching along.
I know if I wait then shortly
they’ll be followed by a Siobhan.

Where are the Nancys and Deborahs
I knew so long ago?
I seem to recall lots of Barbaras
and a Karen or three or mo’.

Somehow these names have faded
into memories of the past.
At the time, before we were jaded,
we assumed that they would last.

But they turned out to be merely fashions
that now are out of date.
They once were spoken with passion
but have met a mortal fate.

I suppose it’s all for the better
if it keeps fading gigolos
from penning vapid love letters
and taking off all of their clothes

for there’s no surer sign to a winsome young lass
that she’s dealing with aging men
than to hear these words as they make a pass:
“Er, what was your name again?”

The Maple Leaf Club

Grandpa Ollie took me downtown,
me in short pants, him I seem to
recall in a short-sleeved white shirt
and long grey slacks in the summertime.
I hoped to get a toy out of it.

We walked all the way to Main Street,
then took a right. He wanted to see
something, and we stopped in front
of a building and peered in.

It looked like it had been a restaurant
to me, now it was about to collapse.
The place hadn’t been painted in years,
the wood was all grey and brown.

“I guess that’s where he played,”
Grandpa said. I asked him who,
and he said “That fella they make
so much about, Scott Joplin.
Place is pretty run down now.”

I didn’t know then what I learned later;
that Joplin was writing opera at the same
time he was playing nights for drunken
cowboys in from the Chisholm Trail,
a whorehouse piano player.

One was a failure, the score to the other
was confiscated when he couldn’t pay
a hotel bill. He ended up in a mental
home, demented from syphilis.

We walked back towards home, and
Grandpa said I could get something.
I remember I picked out an Army rocket kit.
I botched it like every model I tried to make.

The Maple Leaf Club is gone now.
Last time I saw Grandpa alive he was
watching a baseball game on TV,
complaining about all the attention
nigra ballplayers were getting these days.

The Master of the Air

He was, the local newspaper said, a man of vision.
It was he who had seen, back when no one else did,
that even a small town could have its own TV and
radio stations.  He’d been around—Kansas City,
St. Louis.  He knew how to do it, and he got it done.
You could see his handiwork from miles away—
the lights on his tower gleaming in the night.

He was smooth, his dark hair slicked back, and
always well dressed.  He was a booster—if you
believed in our little town, you’d advertise your
business on his stations, and everybody would prosper.
He belonged to all the clubs: Optimist, Rotary, Lions,
Moose and Elk.  He knew the value of getting out
there, shaking hands, being a regular guy.

Some nights he’d look down the boulevard on which he
lived with his wife and admire what he had built;
the square brick studio with the shining glass front,
green, red and blue lights making it glow from behind.
Overhead, reaching almost into the clouds, was the spire
of steel and lights.  You didn’t need to be in a big city;
it was a big country, and you could reach it through the air.

He thought of it as magic, but magic that he understood,
the way a magician knows about the hidden compartments
in his hat and trunks.  All it took was power and equipment;
if you had those, as he did, you could broadcast your sonorous
voice to places you’d never seen and never would see.
You could send your image to other towns and other states.
He was the master of the air, and the waves that ran through it.

When he’d arrive to broadcast from a hardware store opening,
he’d be greeted like a god you’d read about in a sacred text.
“It’s the man from TV,” someone would say, and he’d say
“Howdy—glad to meet you!” with a smile on his face.
He started looking for new sites for new stations.  If he
could do it once, he could do it twice, he thought, then
again, until he’d be master of all the air he surveyed.

He lived with his wife and their little daughter, the joy
of his life.  She was a happy little girl who loved to dress
in frilly clothes.  She was, they knew, the only one they
would ever have, and for that reason all the more precious.
He would swing her high above his head when he got home,
and she would laugh.  Then she started having seizures, and
his wife said maybe he should stop—maybe it would help.

He did, and the little princess of the air was grounded.
“Daddy, swing me,” she would say, but he would say
no, I don’t want you to get excited again.  “But I like to
get excited,” she would say, and so he would take her and
rock her in his arms, singing to her she was daddy’s girl,
daddy’s girl, daddy loves his daddy’s girl.  She would calm
down as he slowed down, and he’d carry her up to bed.

The business grew, and with it the demands on his time.
He had to spend time with advertisers, or fill in for his
newscaster, who was also the high school volleyball
coach, when he was away on a road trip.  He resented
it, but it was the price he had to pay for success, he
told himself.  If the girl was asleep when he got home,
the agreement was he’d leave her be, she needed the rest.

One night he came home to find his wife waiting for him
at the door, a look of panic on her face.  “She’s having
a seizure,” she said.  “We’ve got to get her to the hospital.”
He rushed inside, slipped his arms under the girl, and held
her while his wife threw a blanket over her.  He ran out
the front door but, before he even reached his car, he
felt her kick one last time, and the life go out of her.

In his arms, as he ran, she became dead weight.  He had
heard the term before, but he felt it now.  She was unliving,
like a fifty-pound sack of grain, and a burden he could
hardly bear.  He almost stumbled but he made it to the car,
where he rested her on the trunk; less a body than an object.
He looked up to where the tower stood, and thought of what
had gone out of her; the breath of life, the buoyancy of air.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

The River Where His Lover Lies

The river where his lover lies
is not too wide from bank to bank.
The water eddies here and there
as it flows down into the sea.

The ferry carries cars across
from Chester on one shore to Lyme.
The surface of the water’s calm,
there’s not a lot they have to say.

He took the boat so they could see
the swans that swim along in pairs.
They mate for life, he’d said; the plank
was lowered, so were her eyes.

Something was amiss that day,
some inner peace, some needed balm.
He calculated there was time
to stem the tide, avert the loss.

The water made her paleness stark
against her hair, as she sank down;
and now he has to damn or thank
the river where his lover lies.

 

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