Joe Cottonwood Dec 2017
Dawn when it comes
seems grudging.

Descending jets hum, invisible
above this clouded mountain
as hundreds of humans circle, floating lower
toward the airport far away
in the valley by the bay.

Wider than my spread arms fingertip to fingertip
rises a shaggy wall, massive trunk of a
young redwood, less than two hundred years old,
highway of squirrels,
homestead of owl,
a burn scar, black cave, at its base.
Spiders make busy in the bark,
webs drape like prayer flags.

Leaning, propped by tree,
the iron rim, the rotting spokes of a wagon wheel,
pioneer relic from an era just beyond.

Touched by my fingers tapping keys,
the laptop glows.
Tomorrow, daylight will be brighter.
The tree knows.
First published in *Forage* April 2017
Joe Cottonwood Nov 2017
Hey, wolf spider
on the bathtub bottom
scaling porcelain, slipping —
uncatchable. I want to shower.
You dodge my washcloth, you dart away.
You idiot. I’m trying to help.
Must I spray you to the drain?

Bare-ass, crouching I pause,
resting my fingers on the tub bottom
when suddenly you are tickling the hairs
on the back of my hand: a greeting, an asking.
So I lift.
Rapidly I escort you to the kitchen door,
set my palm on the porch floor
where after rain there is the scent of fungus
but you remain,
you stand on my knuckles with sensitive feet
straddling two prominent veins.
You take my pulse.

I lean close,
eyeball to eyeballs unblinking.
We, both, are hairy.
We frighten women.
We mean no harm.

Suddenly shifting your perch
you read my palm:
heart line, life line, fate.
Almost a handshake.
My future, would you tell?
Then jump, Brother.
First published in *Ink Sweat & Tears*
Joe Cottonwood Nov 2017
“If you grow old, it is your own fault,”
I say to Terry as we climb
the mountain behind his cabin.
Terry is wearing a device that transmits his heartbeat
by cell phone to doctors at Stanford.
Terry has a flutter, nothing serious, probably.
Terry has a great heart, actually,
something serious, warm and wise.

We ascend this hill on Tuesdays every week
discussing poetry and plumbing, our twin passions:
the gathering of mountain water funneled into pipes,
delivered to homes,
the ordering of words funneled into pages
delivered nowhere, sadly.

We discuss friends fallen or falling,
the arc of marriages, parenthood, oddball relationships,
each a story and a puzzlement,
webs woven of love and rage.
That, and motorcycles, we talk,
pacifist veterans who walk still seeking sense
of an incomprehensible war that shaped our lives.
Objectors, conscientious, we realized too late,
not an easy path but better than following orders.
We walked away from war.
He, the Air Force; I, the draft.
Branded dishonorable.
So we hike, hearts pounding,
the simple friendship of two old men
seeking the hilltop
again and again.
First published in MOON Magazine June 2017
Joe Cottonwood Nov 2017
In my little town
dogs sleep on the street
and act affronted
when you drive on the bed.

My little town allocates resources
in proportion to priorities.
We have one school
two churches
and three bars.

The teenage boys in my little town
gather by the pond after dark
with big engines and little cans of beer.
They steal the Stop sign, stone the streetlight,
moon a passing car.
But at least
we know where they are.

In my little town some girls keep horses
in their back yards. Above the dogs and surly boys,
they cruise on saddles astride a big beast,
dropping opinions as they meet.

On the Fourth of July
the whole little town
has a big picnic.

The ducks on the pond in my little town
waddle across the road each afternoon
a milling, quackling crowd
round the door of the yellow house
where the lady gives them grain.
When it rains,
they swim on the road
or sleep there, like dogs.

On a cold morning
the woodsmoke of stoves
lingers like fog
in my little town.

We hold village meetings
where a hundred-odd cranks and dreamers
grope for a grudging consensus.

We cling to the side of our mountain
building homes, making babies
beneath trees of awesome height.
We work too hard, play too rough,
and sense daily something sweet about living
in our little town.
Joe Cottonwood Nov 2017
Noon, I’m next in line behind an old man.
“I want to withdraw fourteen dollars,” he says.
The teller, a young woman with a soft sweater, says
“There’s only—let me check—yes—fifty-two cents.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” She tilts her head. “Sorry.”
The sorrow is genuine.
He wears a pinstripe suit, frayed,
wafting an odor of smoke and earth.
A smartly folded handkerchief, breast pocket,
has a dark stain. His silver beard
is neatly trimmed.

On one wall above the safe is a giant
mural of teamsters driving a stagecoach.
The man says, “There might be—”
“No. It’s always the same.”
For a moment he closes his eyes,
a slow blink while indignities of a lifetime pass.
Without a word, the young woman slides a sandwich
over the countertop through the teller window.
“Blessings on you,” the man says with a nod,  
and he walks away with a limp.

I cash my check, a big one
from three days of messy labor
for a matron of the horsey set.
“He lives by the creek,” the teller says
without my asking. “Under a bridge.”
Outside the bank, in the parking lot of glistening cars,
I look around for the pinstripe suit, the silver beard.
I might offer the man something.
He might refuse to take it.
Anyway, no matter:
he has disappeared like the last stagecoach.
Only the blessing remains.
First published in MOON magazine July 2017
Joe Cottonwood Oct 2017
For a summer resort as a teen
I had the job of cleaning latrines,
three months at minimum wage.
Nobody said, “Good job, well done.”
But it was.

I’ve repaired septic tanks from within.
Mucked in mud laying pipe.
Scraped asbestos. Hot-mopped a roof.
Shoveled bat guano.
Nobody gave me a medal.
Just cash.

Be humble. Do your share.
Society will be better. Civilization more civil,
you a stronger you, it’s really true,
more worthy than those fat cats in their mansions
who I dare not name or
they’d send legal thugs to bury me
in lawyer manure.

Forget latrines. Think billionaires.
They bought the news. Congress. Supreme Court.
Learn about salvage, about repair.
Learn to fix rot at the foundation and work toward the top.
Zoning board. Town council. State assembly. Governor.
Step by step go higher.
Then ask what shitwork is.
And let’s get busy.
First published in *Rat’s Ass Review: Such an Ugly Time*
This poem has been nominated for Best of the Net
Joe Cottonwood Aug 2017
Curtains thick as carpets
shut out the courtyard, neighbors, society.
She’s a gentle, cane-walking woman.
Posture of a question mark. The cords of her neck,
withered stalks as she peers up at me.
From eye to jaw a scar like a dried fig.
The world has run roughshod over this woman.
Pointing at the baseboard heater, she folds
arms over chest, shivers in drama.
“Okay,” I say. “I get it.”

With screwdriver and flashlight I kneel on a rug
woven with exquisite patterns of dangerous beasts:
dragon, eagle, serpent. A nudge on my arm.
Holding a tray of baklava and apricots, she says, “Take.”
In a minute she’s back with a tiny cup. “Take.”
Brew so thick that if you spilled, the coffee
would not splash. It would shatter.

Soon my belly is grinding like a coffee mill.
And the heater is fixed. I kneel over the baseboard,
rubbing my hands in a pantomime of heat.
She takes my face between her fingers.
She beams, nodding her head.
It’s a thank you, but more.
Be nice, she seems to say, and conquer evil.
Opening the door, she sends me outside
with my tool belt and work boots
to the bright sunlight of California, USA.
First published in *Dove Tales*
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