Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 88 (December 1998): 10, 16, 29, 41.
In the company of "publicans and sinners,"
and the poor trading penknives for pocketfuls of bread,
the pawnbroker stands by his glass counter,
buys and sells portions of strangers’ lives.
Some days he looks in the family heirloom mirror
he bought for a few bucks from a bankrupt butcher
and sees the gray hairs of Faustus.
Too many TVs line the inside
of his eyes when he tries to sleep;
pocketwatches click his breathing.
He does not ask what is borrowed or stolen,
what is the last token of love off a widow’s hand.
Hope is the act of returning, the memorized object not gone.
Still, each day his cases are full; business goes on.
A tired ex-nun sells him her medallion of Nicholas.
He keeps it under his shirt, prays she will not return.
Often I rang her doorbell after midnight
in my mind, hat in my hand and hoping.
If a man answered, all hair and husband
in his underwear, what would I do?
Two years since she flew away, taking her name
like a house key. Coiled in an Air Force cockpit,
I fed on dials and dog fights, emerged months later
with a chest of wings, Caliban in blue,
highballs and dogfights at dawn the way to strut.
Pilots worshiped the god called luck,
two-headed Buddha called throttle and stick,
power we wielded with our fists. I thought of her often
after lights out or alone at forty thousand feet. Once,
I cursed an engine fire at night, spiraled
and set it down at the base in her home town,
time for a telephone. I flipped to her name
and there it was: I remembered the number,
even the lick of the tongue of her dachshund.
Taxi idling behind me, I stared at that doorbell
and almost stalled, reached out and pushed.
All that, decades ago. Someone I flew with
has gone to the moon and back, others shot down
over Laos and Hanoi, the endless guilt of surviving.
But here is her photo on this cluttered desk,
her paintings on every wall, our grandchildren
clattering pans in the kitchen, and when I rise
and go there, she leans down, gray-haired
and laughing, watching them roll the dough.
Ada, now, likes the Holy
Innocents. I have had to explain
slaughter, which she understands
vaguely as it applies to pigs.
In Giotto’s fresco, the Innocents
appear as a heap of white
bodies, scattered like hair
just cut, linear blood
spurting tidily from their necks.
It’s horrifying. It looks
planned, the whole thing.
The flat soldiers, starched
into their armor, seem too
appropriately unmoved by all the mothers’
boneless arms which are not raised,
but float up—gravity
has not been invented, I explain—
as if the body’s mourning were a separate
thing from the will’s. I try
to turn the page, to where the Holy
Donkey flies the family into Egypt.
Look how it turns out, I want to say.
She wants the children God wanted
to die, the truth, the street full of tears.