Copyright © 2019 by Paul Scollan
He looks so familiar, the male hairdresser
with spiked hair and gold hooped earring,
was my thought while waiting for my wife
in the cramped waiting area by the reception desk.
I picked up a fashion magazine, on the cover
a wire-hanger super-model sashaying on the runway,
and as I peeked over Lady Anorexia, hoping
to place him, I heard a colleague call out his name.
Bingo! It was the scrappy neighborhood boy who
delivered knuckle sandwiches to kids on the block,
the name that bubbled curses up on mothers’ lips.
Now and then on Saturdays I’d see the dad he adored
dropping by in his pickup, sporting a camouflage tank
top and a bad-boy bandanna on his head, a lit cigarette
always bobbing in his lips as he unloaded hunting, fishing
and camping gear for his son’s wide-eyed perusal.
Not a case of misplaced typing, said my wife, he really
is gay by his own say-so. With this I tried to imagine wars
waged inside and out, dad’s disbelief, fiery recriminations,
threats to disown come true – Sonny’s spunk prevailing.
I paid closer attention. Yes, there was something about him
standing there, scissors and comb in hand, something settled,
even rooted, as if he’d doused all the hot embers heaped high
on his front porch and swept the smoking ashes into the grass.
It wasn’t hand, eye, reflex,
bicycle or road below that failed him,
no, none of those, when he fell
to the sidewalk on his way home
from work in the big city;
It was the virus that wormed
its way into the brain where the nexus
of balance lay, we later learned.
For him the utter bewilderment:
the sudden vertigo, there on the sidewalk,
face-down, the bicycle thrown along the curb,
the wheels still spinning, the great
spheres cockeyed on their axes. To ride a bike:
how natural, natural as breathing, auto-piloting
the handlebars on a perfect swivel.
Hanging on to the curbside sapling,
he slowly rose to his feet, shaken
to the depths of him, the self-correcting
gyro gone haywire, no longer assisting
the navigator, bringing an end to
all he knew and the start to a long roll
to hospital wards, visiting nurses,
filled pill boxes; family scrambling and
dumbly standing by, some of them walking
into three rapid-fire punches – gay, AIDS, dying.
He leaned on his bike as he walked it,
tuning out the whispered name of the plague,
turning from the thoughts that fly to fear,
of judgment, retribution, narrow footpaths
for the righteous, mother’s reproach, Sodom,
Sister Maura’s starched wimple, deadly sins
coiled like tapeworms, squared certitude,
the catechism’s crisp answers, the integrity
of suspended bridges, Lenten fasts setting
wrongs aright, men loving women for
God’s honor; all now afoul with man and
man together, the unutterable, seraphim
turning into gargoyles, all falling down on
the priest-ridden forebears, falling down,
the impact, the hydrant, the no-parking
sign, the crack in the curb shooting
grass, the jagged teeth on beer-bottle
glass, down there where the broom sweeps.
On seesaws no solos. His brothers were not there,
and then they were, pacing about inside their skins,
trying their best not to wear the shock, stumbling
with him till they found their bearings. Balance.
Bus Driver’s Last Stop, Hospice Call
His love of the road drove him to drive
buses long-distance for most of his life.
Grinning wider than a three-lane highway,
he said that’s how he met his third wife,
a passenger on his bus, and there she was
now sitting primly beside him. Every day gave
gifts of something new in those passing scenes
through “God’s country”, like deer and moose
browsing; bear cubs tumbling out of berry bushes;
eagles diving claws-first from giant cedar perches;
surfacing trout flashing back every bead and thread
of sunlight over black lakes rimmed with conifer;
egrets high-stepping in cord-grass marshes along
the Gulf shore; the Texas desert’s monochrome
sand-scape holding back till sunset to freeze the gaze
on runs of reds, purples and yellows unimagined.
Falling back into his recliner snaked with tubes,
he paused mid-monologue to wait out a stabbing pain.
And like many others with light dimming, he wanted
to hail down friends and foes for heart-felt sorry’s –
too late for that now, he knew. Last day as he lay in
his recliner he seemed to be asleep though with eyes
half-open. His hands started fidgeting, arms restless,
as if to signal us he wasn’t done yet, things to do.
Then he startled with a sudden outreach of his right
hand going into a grasping and pulling-in motion as he
murmured audibly, “ Last stop, pleasure to be your driver,
all passengers de-board except the one in the back seat.”
Buck Private Danny, 1969
Through it all, through basic’s first week of sunup jogs,
classes on military protocol and endless marching drills,
Private Danny pressed the little Bible tightly in his hand,
and when left no choice stuffed it in a pocket.
This scrawny blond kid from a backwater burg in Ohio
hadn’t the guile or gall for pretense or malingering –
spoke rarely, smiled benignly, and did all he was asked to do –
which made things dicey for the brass to eject him.
Then came the morning on the firing range, Cease fire!
Cease fire! shrieked Sergeant Cruz for all he was worth,
flapping arms like crazy across the firing-line berm
as a body sprinted down-range against bullets flying.
No mistaking it was baby-faced Danny, Bible in hand,
his back to us, racing swiftly to the targets and beyond,
till our boy shrank down to a speck at the wood line,
undeterred in his higher mission – such as it was.
The soldier in Cruz took control, gave orders to our squad
to chase him down, who after all was one of us, and it was
one of us who caught Danny skulking low in the brush,
and brought him back to be handed over.
We the warriors went on to shoot and drill and bivouac
without him, and I would’ve blotted him out entirely if it
hadn’t been for the annoying times I’d hear his timid voice
rising through the whoooshh-ing sound of the mortar round.
Bringing Out the Snake
They’re calling one in so
we can see that baby in action
and feel more secure knowing
Uncle Sam’s got our backs
and the “slopes” haven’t a prayer:
no outrunning it, no cover deep
enough to hide from it, chances
slim to none of shooting it down –
this being our pride and killjoy,
“the snake,” our helicopter gunship.
Fresh arrivals to ’Nam in in-country
training, we sit in a line on a scruffy field
as the sergeant major places a parachute
from a mortar flare a hundred feet or so
in front of us, the diameter of a bike tire.
The show begins with the thrumming rotor
of the ship flying low to our left then diving
in front of us, discharging a smoking geyser
of bullet rounds and rockets into that parachute,
leaving nothing for the human eye – vaporized.
I walk out to the shot-out target site,
study every square inch for the slightest trace
of silken cloth, not a single thread, the same
when looking up for a far-blown shred in the air
by chance drifting down from the dust-cloud.
Behind me I hear someone muttering softly
under his breath. It’s the grinning sergeant major
in his Alabama drawl, saying, The Lawd giveth
and this heah snake taketh away, soldyah,
and it’s gonna save ya – and don’t fergit it.
Christmas Eve, Vietnam ’70
So far from home and in a place
where natives wished us gone, or dead –
the latter granted all too often –
at least we had our homesick selves.
And on that Christmas Eve were some
who went back home inside their heads,
while others held to one another such
as families do, like us the buddies four
gone forth for rounds of caroling, our mugs
filled up with each recital, best as I recall.
I awoke beside a pile of sandbags by a bunker,
blinked back sun and found my head and feet,
and shrugged it off as countless others hadn’t –
woken up, that is.
Six Wild Turkeys
The local buzz was, six wild turkeys took
over our town the week before Christmas,
and what a brazen, swaggering gang of six,
strutting puffed-out breast and tufted tails
over local lawns and streets as they darn
well pleased, with shameless disregard for
the pressing needs of holiday shoppers
in their hurried rounds, blocking traffic on busy
thoroughfares, standing statue-still in the middle
of lanes or moving slower than possums on tranquillizers,
oblivious – or was it outright defiance? – to honking
horns and drivers’ jeering oaths, for God knows how
smooth traffic flow is so vital this time of year.
I stopped at a green light at the busy intersection
at the bottom of our hill, waiting for the gang of six
to pass by under the din of horns and window-shouting,
when a young lady behind me pulled over, stepped
out of her car with camera in hand and a warm smile
on her face, and took pictures of the gang of six,
unfazed by the ruckus, much like the subjects in her lens –
and just for her the birds struck their very best poses.
Wedge of Blacktop
All they could wish was this wedge of blacktop
by the back-porch stoop of this matchbox cape
in this shirt-cling evening of a dog-day swoon,
the breadloaf radio set out on the rail,
the longneck beers, dead soldiers on the stairs,
Blanche kicking high in her grease-stained housedress,
her great girth tweaked like she’s traveling light,
Chaz winging free right into tomorrow,
in his busman’s pants and his spit-shined shoes,
a sleeveless top and sweet jazz in his moves
to the toot of Duke in “It Don’t Mean a Thing,”
and a switch of the dial to slow it all down,
to home them into arms ringing round to a doo-wop
tune could melt chrome from the Chevy.
Two Old Dogs
He’s snoozing more,
slower to fetch,
scratching his head a lot,
I’ve noticed lately,
and what’s more, he bumps
into hallway walls looking for
a daydream alcove to snuggle into,
and gnaws on a knuckled bone
while lost in the static passing
through his head these days.
Getting more peculiar, for sure,
this curiosity of his – he’ll be standing
there, just staring at things in the yard,
like the monarch on the butterfly bush,
wondering aloud how the tiny hairpin
of a body can part the wind and clouds
with its vast fire-inspired parchment,
and the windfall oak, how its small root-ball
can hold a country of catacomb dwellers
who, stunned by the daylight,
crawl warily out of their homes.
I’m worried my master’s getting to be
too much like me in his idle musing –
and that can’t happen.