We walk along the shore and laugh about not being young anymore —
a lucky thing for us, I think, because everyone has to be beautiful now,
if not in life, then in photographs, and not in the way we were beautiful,
once, my friend and I, with our matching laughs, our matching frizzy
drunken hair, now growing in silvery at the roots, losing its natural curl.
And if we’re honest, it’s a relief that no one even looks at us as we pass,
talking a mile a minute, too loud, striding to keep our hips from ache —
but oh what ships these hips have sunk, what ship-wrecked loves
we’ve given up — not for lack of wanting but because we’d rather laugh,
stretch our calves on the rusting railing of the pier that smells of piss,
watch the gulls, the shirtless men, the half-nude women on bicycles.
Later, I’ll hear my friend’s husband’s snore through the bedroom door
she’s left ajar — or it’s my friend who’s snoring in there, dreaming
her weird dreams, cloak and claw, that she’s forgotten how to get back
to the lovely old hotel she loved — a place in St. Petersburg, perhaps,
where she stands on a balcony and waves to her son passing by
in the street below, who’s a grown man now, who doesn’t stop,
or turn to wave, though he’s seen her there. Oh what loves we’ve lived,
and given life to, and our beauty, in beauty now moving away from us.
This, too, is America. This avenue in Long Beach, California, called Gaviota
— Seagull in Spanish — where trash cans stand at the curb, overflowing,
and an old man sits on a stoop with both feet in the dirt of a ragged garden,
silently smoking a cigarette; the women on porches, the dogs behind fences
barking at shadows, barking at nothing, plastic toys scattered around the yards,
junk cars parked in the alleys and driveways, shiny cars parked along the street,
a homeless drunk zigzagging down the sidewalk, sirens wailing, music spilling
from open windows mi amor into the blue, blue air, palms dropping rotting fronds,
crazed squirrels scampering up the trunks, litter blowing around in the breeze
and then just ahead the long silver horizon where ocean meets sky as I turn
down Rose Street, down Cherry Avenue, past the park where bodies lie sprawled
in the grass, some sleeping, some awake, bodies hard at play on a patch of asphalt,
chests bare, glistening with sweat, and here’s the Pacific, stinking of seaweed
and gasoline, so I breathe it in — pure America, where the dog shit isn’t picked up,
where the blossoms of trees I can’t name brush my shoulders, my temples, as I pass.
I wanted to write a love poem, unabashed.
I wanted, stepping into the meadow,
to bend down and kiss the tips of grass
and then I wanted to take it with me,
the meadow, everywhere I went.
So I plucked a buttercup, a sprig of what
I thought was yarrow, once, and then,
some blue and purple flowers,
and made of my plunder a small bouquet.
I wanted my foot on the stones in the river
where my grandmother's foot had stepped,
then to lie on my back in the sun
and let the butterflies swarm my hair.
I wanted to piss in the dirt, and did —
crouching behind a willow, next to the river
in waist-deep green — to put my body
into the body of that earth, as fluid, gold.
And then I wanted the storm that came
with its blue-black wind and sheets of rain
to tear me back into the sky.
And then one day, so many have gone
to wherever they go, and the river shines —
a slurring of green between the trees;
a faint gold light on the other side.
The breeze here, a soft breeze, but dark
— one spirit flies in as another flies out —
as if someone’s hands you can’t quite see
but remember exactly pass near your face.
A kind man whose memory slips, whose mind
keeps slipping, he says — toward what? —
tells you, The hardest thing is stepping across;
to let go, and go, to be let go of.
And those you’ve loved who’ve disappeared
— more rain sometimes than the ground can absorb —
want your tears no more than they want
to turn back in their leaving, the clothes they wore.
HEAD SOUTH HAIR & TANNING
I’ve got this sister who runs a beauty shop
in a little house at the side of a highway
between two small Kentucky towns —
the town where we grew up
(gas station, laundromat, railroad tracks)
and the town that's the county seat
(courthouse, barbershop, funeral home)
— the middle of nowhere,
my friend from Los Angeles laughed
when I drove him past the place:
a red brick house set out in a field,
an acre of land, with a sign in front:
Head South Hair and Tanning,
a couple of palm trees painted on.
That little house is always packed,
the screen door banging when anyone comes —
friends who drop in for a trim, or to tan,
or teenaged girls wanting perms for the prom
or teen-aged girls with infants in arms
needing to heat up bottles of milk.
There’s an old guy named Tennessee
who stops by just to shoot the breeze;
and a young guy, who’ll maybe cut the grass,
or (someday) flush out the septic tank,
or fix the front porch railing
that's hanging on by a rusted screw.
There’s the ex-cop who kisses my sister
on the cheek each time he goes,
and the neighbor who crosses the field,
arms full of corn and tomatoes and squash,
stuff from his garden he leaves on her stoop.
Some come with plates of home-made food—
biscuits and gravy; cornbread and beans —
in case she hasn’t had supper yet.
Some come with checks
they can't cover till payday;
some leave crumpled one dollar bills
on my sister’s cluttered desk.
My sister fixes hair all day
but she doesn’t charge enough
to make enough to stay out of the red.
So she lives in that little house,
the field in back where her grandkids run,
ragged with yellow wildflowers —
Just weeds, my sister shrugs
when I ask their names,
Just a bunch of weeds.
She needs new glasses and new shoes.
She needs insurance, she says, a good man.
She wants the highway that runs past the place
to bring me home again.