Mr. Cerrado’s Secret Preference for Winter
Summers, the South
Avenue bars from the Classique to
the Coconut Grove leave their doors
and the car windows are down,
the house windows up, and everyone’s
out, a jukebox of curses, cries,
the hustle and stab of the voices.
And the skin, too, is outloud, exposed.
Slick and sexhungry
on the young. On the old,
slack and stained by illness;
a threadbare bonesack.
So even while he trades
with a neighbor the usual gripes about
the grip of winter — the stiff joints,
shoveling, gas bills — secretly
its shutdown and shelter, its muffled
and the way snow tones
the city back to a black and white
shades of sky and millstack,
silent and severe the way time is,
or duty or death.
He can almost hear the pilot
The bar doors stay shut and the skin
under wraps. When he sees
the smoking rooftops he thinks
of a town in an old war,
besieged, emptied, the flesh having
some large and mighty force whose advance
Cerrado and the Higher Powers
What they’d sat him in a pew to learn
hit home his first time in a plane,
the earth from below rilled and peaked
like trashed paper thought twice about
a heavenly host who looked down on just
such an error, a page
grace had tried to smooth flat again
but still rumpled and ridged and inked
with the red of wrongdoing.
(This he could follow, his schoolwork being
what it was. . . )
Even now, Cerrado thinks, this world offers up
more reasons than prayer
to be wadded and pitched to the abyss
the way kids used to jump-shoot
their empty lunch sacks
into the cafeteria can.
But he remembers, too, math he’d fished
from the trash out back, red
not only with ink but tomato sauce,
and how the only numbers that mattered a damn
were her seven digits scribbled in the margin,
— and how he’d called anyway
though he knew he didn’t have a prayer,
not with this girl,
and this year, had she lived, would have been
their forty-fifth married.
So he figures it didn’t take church to learn
love and salvation. Or to picture her
looking back down,
finding the mark that means him
on the wrinkled page.
The Red-Letter Words
Plastic, and all caps, my letters. The same red
they used for licorice and cough syrup.
And my page: the hotel marquee twenty-five feet
in the air.
A twenty-foot ladder made getting up there
almost heroic, a one-handed lunge for the rail
of the catwalk, hanging free in mid-air a moment
till you swung a leg up.
It beat the other houseboy chores: setting up
tables and chairs for a hundred Rotarians;
mopping the lobby; vacuuming hallways.
That was all beneath me
from up there. You could see Rt. 13 bend away
toward one of the lakes the Iroquois claimed
had been made when God pressed a hand
down onto the earth,
the highway a string of tail- and headlights,
the lake a glimpse of moonsheen. Below me,
cars waited out the signal on Triphammer Road
while I spelled
CONGRATS OLIVER AND LUCY, or
WELCOME ELECTRIC & GAS, or
BRAVO LT. VOGEL, or DESPERADO
and I’d stay up there awhile, the catwalk
a crow’s nest, the lights of the glacier-made
valley blending with starlight, a car or two
hailing me with horns
before I’d swing back down from the railing,
find the ladder with my foot, and trade night air
for Check-Out’s interrogating light, for rags
and Pine-Sol and plungers.
At the time, my two principal interests — sports,
and where fame came from — were yielding
to passions for the greater mysteries: breasts
and deep space,
the breathlessly intimate and the coldly remote,
which I knew first-hand only from one night’s
ride home in the car of our high school’s most
Roman Catholic girl.
I could put your name up in lights, I said,
and hardly touched her. She dumped me out
and gave me the finger, a whirling galaxy
of dust from her tires.
Not long after that, fame came to our town:
William Shatner’s one-man show surveyed
the whole history of restless, heaven-gazing
adopting the voice now of Copernicus, now
Galileo, then a whole cast of stellar explorers,
in between whom he’d speak as himself—
Captain of the Enterprise.
My brother and I went home that night awed
by the dark we were spinning through, the dark
that little by little was taking on shape,
behind another revealing itself to the mind,
to the telescope, the observatory, the hieroglyphs
my uncle, a NASA mathematician, used
to talk about sky.
Starstruck hardly covers it, then, when I
saw William Shatner checking out at my
hotel the next day — a beige suit, a bag
by each foot
as he flipped through his wallet, about to go
boldly off to his next show in the next town
with that voice that had hung the planets
from a theater ceiling,
and which was now asking something about
the columns of figures on his receipt.
I leaned on my mop handle there in the lobby,
When he hefted his bags and started out,
I held the door open, and he thanked me
while I stood dumb and humming inside
like a fluorescent light.
That night, I pulled myself up to the catwalk
with something big to say, like the red-letter
words in the Bible, the god stuff, the language
handed down to me.
But what? The dark was an auditorium’s,
my audience everywhere, passing or just
pulling in for the night before other places
welcomed them home.
TINA MARIE LIVE LONG AND PROSPER.
HONK IF U KNOW WHERE U R GOING.
WELCOME IROQUOIS GODS. DESPERATE
Any of which would have got me fired,
and that would have been just fine. The lobby
blared like some kind of jackpot below me,
and back of that, inside,
travelers slept soundly on the way to their lives.
They’d wake next day to a blank marquee—
since of all the words sent down from the dark,
I could make none matter.