Not the high jinks of men haltered to limbs
buzzing the hickory down, but the sawdust
left for mulch by the stump the red ants
stream across, rouge on the pale wood.
Not the pool drained of kids during the storm
that passes miles away, but the jock strap
left after five that the stall washer finds,
a name clearly sewn in the elastic.
Not the linden in bloom but its fragrance
overtaken by the cloud of Nissan exhaust.
Not the original of anything, but the “preowned,”
the hand-me-downs and rags of dolls,
their limbs or eyes left in other towns,
in the laundromat where the poor watch
their clothes fray in the cool-down cycle
or rinse. Not the broken-bat double bringing
the runner in from first, but the line in the stadium john,
the two men pissing into the fountain for washing up,
and the antennas bent by the boys watching your car,
then broken for swords and dropped. Not the music
you make love alongside of, the sexual appetites
so keen your jaw is loose, but this duet for
spare change these slightly rancid men pitch your way.
Not the umbilical cord severed, just the knife
and the sewing up after the baby passes through.
Not your hand, but the man’s electric hand-held massage
pushing into her neck and shoulders, her bra strap
loose at the end, her eyes glassy when she tips him.
Not the sea, but the salt and sand buckled under the waves.
Not the opening of the windows to put the screens in,
but the flagstone steps leading you to the headstone rows.
Not the aspen, but the rake and the pile and the burning.
I help my mother on the toilet, I help her off,
her cotton housedress soaked through with sweat
and so I take it off with her undershirt and bra.
I place the white, round pill and the fuchsia square
on her tongue, and hold the glass as she shakes
and sucks at the straw. I let her rest
beneath the sheet, naked, the industrial fan
in the hall on airplane-high. At fourteen,
I watched her in the mirror in her slip bend
for the lower dresser drawer while I pretended
to sleep, but watched, the fullness, the firmness,
her body once mine, all hers. I do not recognize it
now in her diminishment, her thirteenth year
of worsening, of sickness, her tremors
so strong the bed shakes and groans, her hands
unable to turn the TV’s remote on to watch
Wheel of Fortune and then Jeopardy, and so I do
her that favor, and turn the lights off and kiss
her dry lips, touch her sweat-darkened hair,
unable sometimes to accept her lack of a death-wish,
her happiness when morning comes, the TV still on.
Her tremors are gone for now, and the awful ache
in the spine and hips and feet and head
and wrists. In that moment of peace before
the next rack of pains, she’s thankful, serene,
happy to touch my hand, to hold her cane, to sit up
for the breakfast in bed: prune juice, bran, coffee
and grapes she hardly touches. Her mind is going
where her body leads her, not knowing this day
of pain from the next, and in that loose skein
of thought she seems almost content, almost gone.
It must have been a corporal work of mercy, akin
to visiting the sick or burying the dead, our visit
to the Home for Wayward Girls, a busload of us taken
away from our thoughts of girls to girls ridiculously
uniformed in dresses their bodies made their own.
We didn’t cast lots, but I turned away from my back-
of-the-bus group to slow dance with a girl so wayward
I felt my head slip from resting against her hair and
I began to speak in tongues with her, quietly, the gist
of the holy ghost upon us, she brushing so much of her body
against mine I thought my good suit would catch fire.
“Slow down,” she repeated. “Dance like the niggers dance.”
I imitated that bend of the body, the swish of leg
into dress, the close press of my right hand sifting
dress and buttock skin through it, my chest joining
the draw of her chest, and over punch, during the two
fast songs we stood still through to find ourselves again,
she spoke of nothing but music, no hint of abandonment or abuse.
During the last dance, as the DJ said, “Last dance before
the bus leaves, before you’re back in bed,” she said,
as she lifted her lips away from my neck and its tattoo
for the morning, “You’re not half bad. Come back again.”
I looked her almost in the eye, imagined myself palming
her head and stroking her neck-long hair she said they cut
to size, and with my hands at my side said, “I’d like that.”
In the bus windows we could see ourselves, altar boys
returning to the rigors of discipline, our looks groomed
the way we edged our lawns or whipped the dogs who let
loose, and over the bad mike at the front of the bus,
the priest said, “God will bless you for your kindness.
Remember them, boys, in your prayers.”
Kevin Boyle’s book, A Home for Wayward Girls, won the New Issues First Book Award, judged by Rodney Jones, and will appear in March 2005. His poems have appeared in North American Review, Virginia Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly, and Antioch Review. He teaches at Elon University in North Carolina.