Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ashes

"Ashes,"
(an Edvard Munch painting)


Ashes

You're too scrawny and the errand's too stout,
the boy was told.  For a week it had been cold enough
to yank teeth pretty pain-free.  The big money
poker rooms of downtown Sacramento were full
of state senators, bankers, gaunt pimps, and lobbyists.
The dandies, who said they were the ferrymen of death,
told the boy to find something to hunt for himself,
because he sure wasn't part of their plan.

Then he was on a quavering train through the Sierras,
deep snow outside, a grey mail sack stashed behind his legs,
the money uncounted.  He had wiped a man's gut-blood
off the knife blade now in his flannel coat pocket...
the blood of the man sent, instead of him, to make a robbery.
The boy saw his leather-brown eyes in the train window
and knew something, something for sure, was coming.

Seven years passed: forest fires, cobbled streets,
work with a shovel, rented rooms in brick hotels,
a few winter months polishing bowling pins,
lithe girls he paid to commit his sweat to,
and the boy never counted his murder-money.
The boy turned twenty-one sharing a cake wedge
with a crippled dog that had followed him
to the rail yards of Helper, Utah.
Three, or Three-Legs with still with him
when the boy took day work hacking weeds
for a stooped fellow who watched from a mansion's
polished oak steps in Leadville, Colorado.

It was the summer Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs.
He was too tall, muscled to be a boy.
The Sacramento hotel, where he had gutted
a man, had burned to the ashes no longer visible.
A tinker girl --that's what she took claim to--
cursed him for bumping into her sideways.
Something about the way she walked,
holding the skirt of her dress tight to her legs,
called him to follow... to tents along the river.
She said, Maybe, so he opened a frayed
mail sack and she counted to seven thousand.
Then he mounted her, one fist to her hair,
caught her musty scent, and, later, she said,
You should come with me where I'm going.

He could not say if his tinker girl was pretty,
but he liked the square of her shoulders,
the set of her breasts, the strength of her legs,
the flat of her belly, and the way her hands slow-
stripped off his clothes every Reno evening until
one night she was gone and never came back.
It had started with her standing at an open
bedroom window, began shrill with speeches
to complicitous ghosts only she could reach.
He shifted down to Tonopah, bought a house
with a solidly carpentered jakes out back.

Drink?  The saloon girl had grey eyes
and brought him a bowl of pickled eggs
he could wash down with stale beer.
She followed him home, Nelly did,
and bought new sheets and blankets.
When asked if she would make count
of all that was in the ancient mail sack,
she confessed, I can't riddle this out...
you're treasuring-up a sack of ashes?



 

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