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by David Matthews
We say we believe in things,
Beauty, truth, love,
Mahler's Fifth Symphony,
An old cowbell that rang out
Down below the creek bed bog,
Where winter sun when it set
Would set the edge of the world on fire,
So pretty in a way that once gone is not got back,
However hard we long for it
Or well remember.
I could say it all comes down
If only for a time
To a pale girl, a pearl earring,
The Boy Scout shirt a patchwork of demerit badges
She wore under a bomber jacket
That had been through some things.
There was the Staten Island ferry at dawn.
The wind blew through her hair,
How it stung when it slapped against my face,
And how the Statue of Liberty came on
Like a pointillist painting
In those moments before
The sun burned off the morning mist.
There could be a tale in how I got there
From where I set out and where I stand now,
Confused in the shadow of some moonbeams
And water lilies swept across the tile
Of the railway station floor
Beneath a clock stuck on midnight,
The benches occupied
By mademoiselles more chic
Than I would dare to dream.
She said she'd show me around,
And we set out downtown
To a Ukrainian café.
The wind blew something fierce
Down from the northeast.
Sheets from The Daily News
And the Sunday funnies
Tumbled across Broadway
With waves of yellow taxis
And Japanese tourists
Gathered at the falafel stand.
The night tasted of cannoli
And the cheap red wine we drank
Back in those days when we were young at heart
And the world cried out for us to explore it.
Morning light poured brittle and hard
Through the arch at Washington Square Park.
The chess players wore gloves with fingers hacked off at the first
Their eyes were pinched and brutal with focus.
The one with the moustache surveyed the board.
His hand hovered over the pieces
And moved without haste.
A white pawn took a black knight,
And he smacked his thick purple lips
And hit the timer hard.
Hooded sweatshirt kids offered a banquet
Of coke, speed, junk, and stuff I'd never heard of
And almost as an afterthought pot
In whispery voices like a medieval chorus
Driving off the plague,
And a nun four feet tall with a face
Sweet as Botticelli's niece
Greeted the ubiquitous panhandler
Who wore five shirts underneath a parka
And with hands out sang,
"Save the winos, save the whales!
Save the winos, save the whales!"
We hung out and looked for Dylan
To bring it all back home
And took shelter from the rain
Outside a theater on Bleecker Street
Where a fifties film by Bergman played that week.
Later that same afternoon,
She left six pennnies tip
At a bar on Christopher Street,
Because the service was lousy
And she was a tough baby in leather from Brooklyn
And the pretty boy waiter
Ran two blocks to catch up to us
And hurl the coins at me.
I picked them up off the dirty sidewalk
And put them in my pocket.
It's how I was raised, I reckon.
I followed her some place else
She wanted to show me.
I followed her a lot of places those days
She wanted to show me.
She showed me some things,
And we wasted some time.
It was a sentimental education.
And in the wilds of Coney Island,
I met her pop, a boxer,
A longshoreman, then he became a cop,
And her uncle who worked the docks too.
He found things that fell off the back of trucks.
We took the subway to end of the line
And walked out where the wild ocean
Pounded the shore
On the day after Thanksgiving,
When the sun was just a rumor
And it felt like a stormy nighttime
Middle of the afternoon.
She put her hand in mine,
And we stood there in the wind and ocean spray.
I cannot say what I was thinking of,
I was maybe thinking of a little cottage
In Berkeley or on up the coast,
A fire and a bottle of California red,
The ocean roar muffled in the dark and distance.
I never could tell you what she might have been thinking of.
That is just the way it was
One day on the way up to Figaro
For coffee and a croissant.
I paused to catch the hoop action
At the court on West 4th,
Late in the day
When the players who have game come out,
And she walked on into the night,
And got swallowed up by marriage, abuse, and divorce.
She got a job, made some money, met a guy
With a New York hard-on for life
And a methadone script in his wallet.
They got married in Vegas,
And we kind of lost touch.
I think of her like that, now and again,
On the subway or on the bus,
And it's like she stays in my thoughts
All through the night,
Like I've been reading Rilke
Till the angel nails my eyelids closed to the dawn.
I play it all back
Like a movie in my mind,
And now I am remembering
A lonely, skinny, shy kid
Who the only thing he ever knew how to do
Was to do good in school.
He is out there all alone
Fingers numb in winter cold
Shooting jump shot after jump shot
In make-believe games with commentary too,
While the sun sets atop those Carolina pines
And the color of it sprawls
Out across the horizon
Down there beyond the creek bed bog
And floods that strip of sky
With color wild and grand
As a kid feels every time the ball whistles through the tattered net,
As tonight when I come to my desk
And memory serves me true
As all that dream
I think I will hold onto.