Monday, July 07, 2008

For Jackie, Who Will Never Read This - Helen Humphreys

Saturdays we have dinner in her booth. Red
table cloth. Food she's brought to the car wash
from across town. Lasagna. One week fried chicken.

We sit in our uniforms at the counter, wedged
between the safe and the cash register. Lights out.
Waxy splash of candles making
the booth look adrift from outside.

I turned back once at the pumps,
helping some woman with her gas cap and saw
the lit bubble of it behind me on the asphalt.
Signal, I thought. Lighthouse. Ship at sea.
I came in and told her these things,
but she wasn't interested. Listen,
she said, pouring coke into two plastic cups.
My boyfriend is fucking useless. Doesn't
do shit. Won't do shit. Like those guys.
Like they say on TV. Emotionally reversed.
Reserved, I said. Shut up,
she said. You know what I mean.

I knew what she meant only because I knew her. Dragging
the ladder over the parking lot on Monday
morning, the scrape of it against concrete, because
she's left a note stuck to my stool with gum:
The cube sign isn't revolting.
My body pressed to the steel, hands up
under the plastic skirt. Turn
you bastard. Rotate, swivel, twist, spin.
Pirouette your sad dance of light around this pole.

She doesn't read. (Why? she says.) What she wants
most is money, the shiny lie of the mall.
What she wants is out. Tell me the truth, she said one day.
When will we be gone from here?

I'd like to feed her words. Lying on our backs in the dark.
Lower them to her lips. Incarnadine. Rhodopsin. Sweet
droop of them. The promise on her tongue.

But she doesn't want this. Not at all.
The word lasagna is not the thing lasagna
and that's what matters. You eat it and it's gone.

A word doesn't flicker like a bad light bulb
in the stairwell behind you. (You die
and that's it, she would say.)

Is this how we stop belonging to each other?
Humanity and language emptied to private ritual. The
cloistered whispers of love. (But isn't that why
we fall in love anyway, to be able to say the secret,
dangerous words that are in our heads? To name
each other with them in the dark?)

And the opposite of this--how we lose responsibility
for meaning--the blank, common jargon of cults and
talk shows. Words masticated to drool.

We still need language to find us, to tell us where
we are. Radar. The backlit screen. (That's just crap,
she would say.) The truth
is that these words mean it's over,
that already we are gone from here.

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