iv. The Abiding City
On quiet mornings like these, with a borrowed car and a heavy bundle of keys in hand or pocket, and possibly a paper teacup, he feels that he is his father. The thought makes him sigh more frequently than is his wont.
The act of driving to work (as opposed, of course, to taking the bus) takes on a kind of mythic significance: doing battle with the great tyrant, the dawn. The clouds are an extension of himself; the other cars are birds met in unanticipated silhouette in the high reaches of vapour.
At work that day he is awoken by the most majestic dreams…
In the parking garage, the dust-blanketed, tireless Oldsmobiles the colour of Egyptian tombs remind him that apartment buildings are dying places for the elderly.
His mother starts them with a salad. After a gulp of water, he stabs through a vertebra-shaped leaf to the crouton below. The inky, out-of-a-tub taste of the mixed greens is just masked by a homemade vinaigrette.
Being fed by his mother invariably gives rise to a sense of his infantile helplessness, an invalidism. Though with reluctance, he reverts immediately to a kind of pre-linguistic receptivity. Whatever comes his way – broccoli, potatoes, bread, wine – he is resigned to accept. All joy is absent from these acts of digestion; his bloated stomach receives only tablets of a vaguely nourishing sort of stone. His skin feels cold, though the wine flushes his sweaty face, his grinding teeth purple-stained and filmy. The tightness in his chest returns. He longs for a cigarette.
Dinners like these
Among the stacked dishes
the serving platters
the wine glasses of varying degrees of emptiness
the torn crepe crowns.
There is always stale bread
in the basket on the counter
after dinners like these.
Grandpa shows him his address book. “See? All Xs.”
I ride my bicycle to the lake
on the east side of the city
to eat a sandwich.
I can’t get comfortable
sitting on the grass – my legs ache,
hanging below my body
at wheelspoke angles;
my back is stiff with
bands of inactivity.
White and blue-shirted couples stroll
the paths hand in hand.
Babies are wheeled about in strollers.
A few joggers stride by in their
rational fear of heart seizure.
The lawnmower menaces
with its engine growl and arbitrary swirls,
looking for patches to devour.
The birch leaves flutter
like paper on the trees;
dogs piss uncomfortably in the shade
beneath them, jingling.
The green paint is peeling in the lobby, and the stairs creak. There is no elevator. The stiff-carpeted hallways smell permanently of boiled spaghetti, cabbage rolls, meatloaf.
Outside the second-floor window of his apartment is a tree – a black poplar, a cottonwood, a hornbeam, a chestnut. He has no clue.
Selected to line the city streets due to the modest, tidy, upward trajectory of its branches, the trunk of this tree (and the thousands of others like it) is more grey than brown, dotted with mustard-powder splotches of moss and occasional crescents of white lichen.
It is August. When looking towards the window, and despite the push of traffic and the rise of grill fumes from the breakfast café below, the abundance of yellowish green, spear-shaped leaves provides the apartment with a treehouse sense of invulnerable separation.
I’m surrounded here by scraps of paper: mail, bills, blank cheques, blue Post-its, pink ones, a French phrase calendar abandoned April first, an old cover letter, an article on Korean housing, a Ticketmaster receipt, a Petit Prince address book, a postcard, some playing cards, a lab requisition, a notebook, a liquor licensing brochure, a box of tissues, four birthday cards, and reminders for shifts, employment insurance reporting dates, bill payments, and file backups. There is a safety pin, some pencil shavings, a dime, a pencil, a spent inkless pen, an iPod, an eraser, and four unlabeled CDs. A bowl of sugarless scotch mints, a tealight, and a cup filled with more pens. Some eyeglass cleaner, scotch tape, and paperclips. One of those Russian dolls, a photograph, no, three photographs, and an empty wineglass.
I promise I’ll be a better man tomorrow.
He pushes southward against the flow of cyclists and pedestrians on the bridge deck heading downtown; below, insect columns of oil drums and a few shrugging warehouses lie in the foreground of a silver-glittering monstrosity hulking like an abandoned spacecraft beneath the rising sun – apparently some kind of architectural marvel. Rising pinkish-brown from the approaching bridge crest and crowned with the morning’s only cloud – an unnaturally pristine pillow of steam – his destination seems a vague pastiche of a Victorian factory. He marches swiftly to work.
He has taken to wearing on his lip the sort of pubic scruff he formerly reviled on others as unflattering and unclean.
Lying to you
I would be lying to you
if I told you
I was a blue-collar poet
I have had blue-collar jobs
during university summers
grew up in a blue-collar town
but didn’t know it
I am familiar with muscle
once lifted a jackhammer
it gave a few throbs
I wouldn’t be the first poet
to tell you
Some part of him wishes to trundle up into the hills to reclaim his ancient birthright, to rediscover fire and the blade, to manufacture clothing of sinew and hide. Another part of him recognizes this as mere romance. It is, of course, something he will not do.
He has become attuned to a faint presence in clouds of tobacco smoke, in certain songs, in imagined medieval alleyways where wine-drunk villains concealed in capes and triangular caps lurk with daggers, sniffing out pouches of gold.
There are days when the city is suffocating – a bandage on an open sore. The fumes clutter his head, rendering his thoughts incomplete, abortive.
Brand new morning
I sit on an immovable bench
on the pedestrian walkway,
mid-span of the bridge.
A bodybuilder type approaches,
twisting off his t-shirt
twenty meters away –
presumably getting a headstart on his suntan.
He wears a close-trimmed goatee
reminiscent of dog fur,
his muscular shoulders bound like
He pauses, sneers: “What are you looking at?
Below, a pair of backhoes
from a barge.
His uncle takes him sailing in the inlet: steering, shifting the sail, sipping frantically at a beer can when hands are briefly freed.
Every moment is perilous above the black unsettled moat; he wants instruction at every turn. The setting sun is a betrayal of any flimsy, momentary confidence he gains. The walls of the freighters loom like barn targets as he wheels at the helm. The bridge just hangs there in front of the horizon like a mess of rotten rope.
Once ashore, the beer his uncle provides tastes salty, complicit.
His fear is chuckled away as irrational and unmanly once confessed.
He reasserts his admiration of the pretty sunset.
Not new in town
a taste so close
to the old one
Watched too close
to leave my yolk
Scatter of buckshot
from my eyes
The neighbour draws her blinds in seeming resentment of an uninvited gaze. He snuffs out the cigarette in wax and rain-clumped ash and returns to the warmth of liquor and indoors.