This morning asks for fire. A crown of sun-inspired sonnets waiting for us to scatter unfinished jewels of conversation at the threshold of day, whispering second names to faceless hours at the empty table. You waited all night for answers. Left the door open to parking lot sounds and motel voices. The radio low–no music, just the half-static of DJ voices talking about news and third shift poetry–black coffee politics for the paper bag lunch night owls. You used to think 4 a.m. was romantic. A dinner in the wake of the washed up drunks. The noir quality dead end towns took after last call. You used to know all the songs a sloppy rum wrenched heart offered. They were prayers when everyone joined in on the chorus. They were curses muttered in the staggering march into the mind’s dark alleys alone. You traded away all this for clarity as resonant as the St. Joe’s church bell for high mass on a Danville Sunday. Now you know why muffled concussion has its own virtue.
Mallet to die cast bronze. The rings around your eyes.
I sat up in my hospital bed when they wheeled him in. War vet. Greatest generation. Valve replacement. He breathed sandpaper. No cough. Not enough energy for much more than labored breath. The nurses were a parade of white and blue scrubs. A red plastic tote with empty vials and needles. They drew blood from his arm like they were milking it. Compressor noise. Pulse monitored. I could hear the ice melting in my cup. Later that morning he asked for his wife and his cigarettes. I gave him my Jell-O–told him it was low tar. His laugh had a curled brittleness to its edge.
Name written in the margins of a history book. Basement classroom.
If the hands of the clock were dominos, they would flutter freely without the machinations of gears or gravity. No incitement to motion–no cause for movement. You have waited so long all your pages have filled with consequence but no cause. Hours hits you all at once, unload truth like a duffle bag lugged up a flight of stairs into an abandoned bedroom. Anticipation without antecedent. You have thought so long about absence, you’ve totally forgotten about presence–what here really means. The concrete detail of an apartment all your own. Arms to call home. Words to call yours. This stereo has always had courage to live with you–sometimes in spite of you.
Black river on a turntable. South Street wrapped around a coffee mug.
It’s not easy to choose life when you’re in a hospital. “My own terms”–a mantra up and down the cardiac ward. The Marlboro Cowboy with lungs of clay and an artificial heart. Eleanor Rigby waiting for Father MacKenzie and surrounded by no one but 83 ghosts–one for every candle on her birthday cake. A shift nurse talking about her boyfriend in Joliet, a countdown to Friday nights in The Second City’s shadow. She spent the last hour arguing with my new neighbor over a low sodium diet. All he wanted was a Big Mac. His retired buddy passes him a flask. The room just smelled that much more antiseptic. I have been walking the halls of the I.C.U. and thinking about how my grandfather died in his own bed. Cancer. Quietly loved. Most of the family never moved beyond the town limits. It’s like he waited for us.
Sunset cradles the interstate. My father carries me to bed.
The current moves around you–turns clockwise to the footfall of your needle. You remember packing your friend’s Bowie cassettes. You wrapped them in a towel so they wouldn’t get smashed in his backpack. Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Low, Heroes, and the last two tapes from the Sound and Vision Box Set. You gave him your copy of Tim and the collected Minor Threat. You wanted to send him off with well chosen and profound wisdom. You folded your arms to hold your ribcage in place. All those days that summer you would never get back. Not cheated. Not fair. One time, across a friend’s kitchen table, you asked him if there was anything more powerful than sound committed to magnetic tape. He filled his lungs with smoke and played you The Germs.
He told you to dream of razors. Blood on porcelain tiles.
It’s been over a year since the last time I was hospitalized. There will always be a strange competition inside me–heart and kidneys are a balancing act of medication and circulation. My last day in bed, waiting for discharge papers, I began writing all the names down. Each and every one of you who aren’t here due to circumstances beyond your control. I wanted to say I miss you and I’m sorry I didn’t say it when I could, or moreover–how we didn’t celebrate the role those summers take in building the city inside my chest. I expose the brick and scaffold all these years later only after the fact. I didn’t understand what shape absence takes until the room emptied of sound. I wish you could hear just how much life wakes with me these days. The Old World sparrows the fence in my backyard. The rustle of gingko leaves–the delicate armour of college campus before the day catches up. Some nights it takes all my energy to stand still. I fold myself into the breath of a page and straighten the restlessness from my spine.
Silk tie rosary. I lean into your echo.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Minnesota Review. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.