One summer between hemodialysis and trespassing,
which is what the cops called my father’s knack
back in those trickle-down 80s for finding
abandoned shacks where we could squat, the bulk
of his wage already committed to the gas tank
to get him to and from Mom’s hospital cot,
one of those brief spurts where she felt all right,
they got it in their heads to take us across state lines
to a cave. I couldn’t tell you the name. Just some dime
tour spearheaded by a bored high school girl
reading off a palm-sized script, our ragged column
of hippies and senior citizens passing the slow calcium drip
of stalactites, walls that bubbled like bathwater
beneath the manic swish of flashlights, knotting closer
and closer as we went, nervous laughter,
each step a disquieting retreat from history.
I had my own flashlight, a brassy thing long as my arm
that I waved like a lightsaber, proud of its necessity,
its phallic heft. The tour ended at a crossroads,
two tunnels dipping further into the underworld.
Our guide told us, in the voice of a camp counselor
tired of the same old ghost stories, about this explorer
who chose the wrong tunnel and wound up lost,
hungry and webbed beneath the mountain.
She said his bones were still in there somewhere,
brown and soft in the absence of sunlight.
But the other path, she said, merely circled back
to where we started, a kind of petrified birthday ribbon.
And now—she paused, drawing out the affect—
I will turn off my flashlight so that you can experience
true darkness. At first, I listened
to the unlit bellows of breathing strangers,
imagined those tunnels, half of which led to ruin—
and no one down here to count on but stoned parents,
a derisive older brother and some girl
with hoop earrings the size of my forehead.
I hardly realized what I’d done until someone
laughed, Dad pinched my bare arm and our guide
cleared her throat and asked them
to make me turn off my flashlight, its frantic,
concentric efforts trying to illuminate
that sunless divide, those water-warped tunnels
yawning identically like some pre-Biblical gaze
I have spent every day since trying to meet.
God help me, it’s tough. To hell with winning.
I can feel my bones browning in their own
soft vaults and I know down here,
it takes everything you’ve got not to flinch.
So here I am, a thirty-four year old white guy
carting through the grocery store with two dozen
boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes for his college students,
humming All That I Got is You by Ghostface Killah,
a tune I picked up when I was sixteen and sure
being a poor farm boy with a dying mother,
a few birth defects, and the gallstone of my virginity
meant I knew something about growing up
in the inner city—same way I kept in the back pocket
of my mind all those lessons on the Holocaust
I was convinced I understood better than anyone
else from fourth period history. Now,
I swing by Starbucks for a refill and stop to eavesdrop
on a pastor—a guy about my age—who’s busy
trying to convince the young woman
across from him that it’s not a sin anymore
to want to have sex with your husband
even though you’re pregnant, no chance of growing
another sentient orchid until the first is pulled
and meticulously cleansed of nightsoil, you
already well on your way to wherever you should be.
Though sometimes you still feel it:
that inconvenient yearning for distinction,
like the morning you woke whole hours before
the funeral, just so you could watch dawn
sigh off those charcoal fields and like far too much
how the sun rose, all wide-eyed and tough as hell.