Jonathan Witte
Jonathan Witte
2 days ago

We never cracked the mysteries of Pittsburgh,
and Baltimore bled out inconveniently before

our eyes, another nervous snitch knifed outside
the corner convenience store in broad daylight.

Salt Lake City was too pure, too white,
theocracy carved into a wafer of snow.

We grew tired of watching Los Angeles
pleasure itself in the sun like a porn star,
interminably tan and vacuous.

And Chicago was too fucking cold.

So we settled here, where streets turn
the soles of our shoes to palimpsests

where every apartment elevator
offers a wall of infinite buttons

where grocery stores stock their shelves
with bottles and bottles of octopus ink

where neighbors open their curtains
and stand shimmering in moonlight

where weather mixes with nostalgia,
creating immutable, poetic forecasts

where water tastes like redemption
and the skyline rises like a chorus,

so much taller than the cities
we inhabited when we were

alive.

Come springtime, when the magnolia
tree exploded in bloom in the backyard
I’d grab the bolt-action .22 from the closet
and call out to my sister to tell her
that after a long winter, it was time.

There were hundreds of them, and for hours
I’d knock those blossoms down while she
darted below the canopy catching every one—
stunned pink birds nesting in her hands.

We never missed, either of us, and when
the bullets and blossoms were gone,
she would laugh and shake the petals
from her hair and brush them from her
bare arms and neck like pastel feathers,
the soft relics of an unexpected snow.

In her dreams, the docent
maneuvers schoolchildren

down museum corridors,
shepherding their bodies

into evacuated galleries
where nothing changes

except the patterns
of nails hammered
into plaster walls.

She speaks pedantic
falsehoods until one

by one the children
disengage and find

themselves a constellation
of nails upon which to hang.

A renaissance takes time, but
not as much as you might think.

Come midnight,
the museum is full
of masterpieces.

And though the works
of art make her weep,

the docent is inspired
to study each small frame
for a brushstroke

that might signify
the break of dawn.

It took Vegas two days
to teach me that winning
is the taste of salmon roulade,
green lip mussels and
pineapple glazed ham.

Losing is the smell
of shoe-worn carpet,
warm poker chips and
air recycled through the lungs
of a thousand desperate strangers.

I walked the Strip
an educated man.

I swallowed the lights
like squares of Starburst
candy melting to neon
in my shining mouth.

I found the desert in pitch
blackness and placed bets
on the stars with my eyes

until they fell from the sky
in a shower of silver coins.

Nine years and still
we cradle our grief
carefully close,
like groceries
in paper bags.

Eventually the milk
will make its way
into the refrigerator;
the canned goods
will find their home
on pantry shelves.

Most things find
their proper place.

Eventually the hummingbirds
will ricochet against scorched air,
their delicate beaks stabbing
like needles into the feeder filled
with red nectar on the back porch.

Eventually our child
will make her way
back to us. Perhaps.

But I’ve heard
that shooting
heroin feels
like being
buried under
an avalanche
of cotton balls.

For now it’s another
week, another month,
another trip to Safeway.

We drive home and wonder
why it is always snowing.
Behind a curtain of snow,
brake lights pulse, turning
the color of cotton candy,
dissolving into ghosts.

And with each turn,
the groceries shift
in the seat behind us.
From the spot where
our daughter used to sit,
there is a rustling sound—

a murmur of words
crossed off yet another list,
a language we’ve budgeted
for but cannot afford to hear.

Stalled in afternoon traffic
by the crack of a jackhammer
and the smell of hot asphalt,
what else is there to do but wait
for the sun-kissed woman
in muddy work boots and
orange vest to acknowledge me.

She has a tattoo of an AR-15
on her left forearm and more
ink (an octopus?) under her eye.

She is in total control.

Her unclasped safety
vest flaps in the wind.
The smoke from her
Marlboro Red snakes
down the line of cars
and wafts into my open
window with a smell
so strong she should
be riding shotgun.

She alone will deliver me.

As the jackhammer
fires on full auto,
I wait like a child
for my turn to go.

Her eyes squint and the octopus
squirms and my afternoon restarts
with another twist of her gloved hand,
the sign revolving from Stop to Slow.

The air is warmer
at the river’s edge.

The insects cloud
around your head,

and the white cottage,
the one your wife’s
father built by hand,

seems to be burning
in the afternoon sun.

The hammock strung
between two dogwood
trees twists in the wind.

There should be no shame
in recollecting the songs
she sang when the children

were young and unpredictable,
how they splashed in shallow
water, catching minnows.

Why not close your eyes
and imagine you hear her
calling from the other side?

The slap of a fish jumping
is like a palm to your cheek.

Out there, in the middle of it all,
silver scales flash in clear water—

a contorted shadow swims below,
hooked to impossible brightness.

 
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