(an Arthur Rothstein photo)
Library of Congress
Death Merits a Better Place
You're in Vegas at some dollar machine,
Anybody know what day it is?
You think you can pay the fare.
This sweet machine's gonna respond
because it likes, loves the girl on my arm.
And who is holding the reins at this moment?
Mother Earth refuses you.
Silence of boots. Vultures dive.
The pale head light of a far off freight train.
Stolid machines at the shore of a dry lake.
Threatful dark on a moonless night.
You no longer recognize your own impulses.
No one can say, for certain, they have gathered
their best half-ideas in the proper order.
You place one boot in front of the other.
Yes... a far gone Easter and ladies
in ridiculous wide-brimmed yellow hats.
Yes... a best friend who loaned you his sister.
Oh... Mr. Death gropes along the desert
beside you, fakes sympathy like an uncle.
The casino's air ducts are blasting cold
oxygen at you. A tarted-up half-lovely
hands you a free shot of Jim Beam.
Very soon: you are standing beside someone's
totaled Corolla, which you liberated back in Vegas.
Imprecision of impulse. You can't just stand around
on the road to Kingman where you know people.
Very soon: you're pissing in front of a mirror
in a bathroom in a well-upholstered Vegas suite.
Your tired friends ask where you've been.
A buddy is nearly a grand ahead on games of chance.
A little later: from a dead clump of trees at a failed
subdivision south of Boulder, you watch cops
point vaguely at the wrecked Corolla.
Your heart feels as if it will bust loose of your chest.
Thirsty, arms dangling, you bellow at the cops,
stumble-jog in their direction... and they drive away.
Mr. Death says you can get by just fine,
It's a performance. You borrow his shirt
to drape over your head like a drug store Arab.
It's time to sing-up a Hoyt Axton song.
Some fool on the desert was saved by seven
women out for unbuttoned solidarity embraces.
Some family was saved by a shitheel TV traffic
reporter on an off-hour helicopter joy flight.
Some fools look into their barren souls
to find further life in laughter at self.
Or... every so often some guy survives
the desert on the thought of where
his girl ran off to when he started
a losing streak at the dollar machines.
I'm tired, not angry, you say.
She's trying on wigs to see
if she can resemble Marilyn Monroe.
The suite you are in looks unfamiliar,
but there's your athletic bag and her luggage.
She says, This waitin' 'round is killin' me.
There's a room service tray over in a corner
with a plate of black bacon and orange rinds.
She says, I crossed over into crazy
when I married you, careless bastard.
You squint like Roy Rogers and she does not
resemble any woman you want to know.
In the photograph of you in the Review-Journal,
you are holding tight to a bleached cow skull.
The nurse at the side of your bed
is smiling sweet as pancake syrup.
Idiot-beaming next to you is a guy
with a sleeves-torn denim jacket,
skull patches all over the front.
The caption says he was looking
for arrowheads when you
sang some song real bad
from a dry wash.