|
A novel in verse … and the writing thereof
Click on a line to comment

Downtown

Trolleys and buses were still running, but

much good they did us: every one was

     jammed, people leaping up to hang on

by their fingernails and belts; The gripmen in

the cable cars, fiercely focused, fought to keep their balance and

not plow through the people surging into and

     across the streets, while the conductors

had given up pretending to take fares.

The one whose eye I caught shrugged

     and smiled wider, and as he turned away,

yelling joyously to the crowds inside the tram

and out, I saw war’s heavy hand on him,

     the empty sleeve pinned up

     to the shoulder of his jacket,

               and turned away myself, quickly.

So we walked, swept up in crowds and kissed

     by soldiers; somewhere south of Market

we lost Edna; she didn’t turn up for

     three days. Ruby kept a firm grip

     on Nora, who barely kept her feet, while Mary

               linked her arm with Jane’s.

On First a harried hotel doorman told

a soldier with a girl on his arm

     that they were full up; “You are?” the man said.

“Well, I’m fed up. The trains have stopped, you know;

we need a place to stay.” The doorman

     eyed them; the fellow said, Not

together; he was just escorting this lady

through the crowd. Just then, another man

slipped up behind the doorman, whispered briefly,

and slid away. The doorman cleared his throat,

clasped his hands. “Actually,”

     he said, “it appears we do have space. Due to

     the unusual circumstances—“

(Just then a flying soldier’s cap sailed over

the crowd, landing

     askew on his head) –“such as”

(he removed the cap) “the stoppage of trains,

the management has decided to open the ballrooms

to guests. One for gentlemen, and one for the ladies.

     You will get a blanket and” (he coughed;

miserable over this meager offering,

he coughed again, his self-imposed task

to reconcile a blanket on the floor

     with his own dignity)

“And space to spread it,”

he finished desperately, “for a dollar.”

“Eight bits?” The soldier cocked his head and got

the lady’s nod; the doorman bowed them in.

“Come on,” said Mary, dragging on my arm,

so moving after her, my head still turned

to watch the hotel door swing slowly shut,

     on that cool quiet world within,

I walked smack into a

     large-bellied woman of fifty,

all paisley and plaid, scattering confetti from her purse.

“Are you all right, dear? What a time! Lord,

isn’t this a time! Good thing I’m fat,

you bounced right off! Have some confetti, dear.”

She pressed it into my limp hands (if she’d

thought to stick it in my mouth, well fine;

     I probably hadn’t wit to object,

and my mouth, I’m sure, hung open) and sailed

     off through the crowd, crying, “Spread the joy,

               spread the joy!”

“Spread the joy!” yelled the fellow in uniform (army), one

     of three, who grabbed and kissed me. Another

had got hold of Jane, I saw, but where were Nora and

Ruby? Swept away.

Mary grabbed Jane’s shirt in one hand and

my arm in the other, and the third soldier,

reaching for her, fell back sharply.

“Did you kick him?” I gasped, but she

     just grinned, and I

spun to look after him, this time into a tall

thin man in formal wear, his cummerbund

     aglint with metal and ribbon. “My son’s,” he said, as Mary

pulled at me. “He died, that we might live.”

Below tear-filled eyes, his lips squirmed, like two

slugs writhing; that was not what I should

be thinking, I thought, and dragged my

shameful gaze away and asked, “What was his name?”

His face clouded, then cleared;

“He was a marine.” And again:

“He died, that we might live.” His lips started again

their awful twitch and pulse; I put my head down,

and bullied after Mary over paper-paved streets, the pages

sifting down from rooftops where ecstatic celebrants

tossed them by the handful or (the more exuberant

amongst them) dumped whole boxfuls on

     we happy revelers

               below.

 

I worked my shifts both that night and the next

—war’s end did not heal its wounded—

and slept between, smuggling cafeteria

food to Mary, who slept nights in my bed

while I was on the wards. She said they wouldn’t

miss her at the office; “And anyway,

I doubt there’s much call for typists now; I bet

if you looked hard enough, you’d find the letterhead

of Perkins, Balmore, Straap and Fitch somewhere

on Market Street, trampled black.”

     When we read

in Thursday morning’s paper, eleven had died

in riots the day before, we stared at each other

     over our orange juice. “Good god,” said Mary.

“I thought it was a party.”

page 11