We stopped to eat at a McDonald’s after —
I’m sure the counter-girl could smell
the plastic-clean of stitches and nurses’ gloves
and medication hanging over him
while we ordered fries and burgers to fill
our guts before we made the long drive home.
And when we found a seat I thought that things
were fine. We sat there talking about the family,
until he spilled his drink and lost his ****,
real bad this time, and he stood and said:
“I was alive when Carpenter’s was still
the biggest bus maker around — your grandpa
lived in Tunnelton and drove to work
across the cliff to crank them out. He smelled
like oil and the dusty river all the time,
and he used to never let your mother out
at night, because he thought that cougars
were thick around his farm. You bring her back
before the frogs are calling, he’d say, you bring her
back before the cats get at her face —
my daughter there’s worth more than your life —
she’s a queen and that’s a real queen’s face.”
He paused to **** a piece of ice and smiled,
and then he looked at all the busy people
bent up over their plastic dinner trays
looking at him, and he bit the ice and laughed.
“I never saw a cat like that. It was
the cliff that got her, and he should have watched
the river, driving by it all the time
the way he did to go and build those buses —
lots of things were rusting in the river,
and I guess the busses rusted, too. I didn’t see
a killer cat around the farm, but I saw
a thing or two that’s worse. I saw the light
they lit over her grave — you were too young
but you saw it, too: a propane thing we filled
together. You can’t buy one like that today —
today it’s all electric and plastic stakes,
and you never have to see the grave again
after you’ve planted one of those solar lights.
It stays for good. Those lamps outlast their names —
as long as the sun remembers to pay respects.
But I remember liting the little flame.
I remember how your grandpa’s face
lit up like a ghost’s, and I could see the scar
something large carved in his cheek one night
when he was hunting raccoons by the riverbank
out near the mouth of the Tunnel. It’s all
gone now — even the river’s lost the way
it used to smell like pines from on up north,
and only ghosts walk through the Tunnel — gone.
All of it. All gone. I guess he should have watched
the cliff, because it’s all gone now. All of it.
Even the buses rusted away, and there’s
no flame to mark the ghosts that’s left to stay —
all we’ve got are lights that last forever.”