by Gail Denham
…per Karla Linn Merrifield’s photo
of Alaska mountains and sea, “Ring of Fire”
My emotions waver between fear and compassion.
Turmoil often churns inside like the hot oil Mom
used to make chips as a special treat. Sam sits
on his corner, as usual. His rheumy eyes bore into me,
from underneath his Seattle Mariner’s cap, pulled low,
so dirty I barely make out the logo, but I know.
It’s cold enough to make my nose run. I pull
out a clean handkerchief, fresh this morning
and wonder if Sam even has a tissue. His hands are grimy.
I could bring water, but it would freeze. I think this angry
man must surely have frost bite, waving his sign:
“Veteran. Need help,” the sign says. Only I know
it’s been 50 years since his stooped form wore
a uniform. I can feel his seething distain for those
who fail to drop a bill in his rusty can.
After a good day’s take, I’ve watched him erupt when
he props his raggy jeans on a stool at the corner bar.
There he raves at government, the economy, at the wife
who kicked him out, probably 20 years ago.
Sam’s arms wave wild then–a wonder Jess, the bar keep,
doesn’t tire of his volatility. “There, but for God’s grace,
I’d be,” Jess says, reading my disgust. “I had me a bad time
in Korea. Couldn’t stop exploding till some guys from
that church gave me a leg up. Sam just needs to spout off.”
Inside, my fear clicked. I knew what men like Sam
could do. That hot anger, barely under the surface,
had landed on me, back then. Welts on my back remind
of Dad’s belt. He’d erupt without warning.
These memories shoot through my body like hot lava. Dad
raved too. He’d seen buddies fall, still heard their screams
when he tried to sleep. A little liquor and he’d strike, blow
off his top. Mom would soothe me, tell me not to mind.
“Dad hurts.” When I left, I swore never to be around
unpredictable vets like Sam, or my Dad.
Now as I near Sam’s corner, his angry eyes seem to grab
at me. Inside, I still shake a bit, as if the ground moves.
I start to cross the street to put distance. My insides rumble
as I pull off my gloves and drop them by Sam’s feet.