THINGS YOU CAN'T EXPECT
For Barry Cunnane
Being met at the airport with news
your friend was killed on Saturday night
while you were sneaking a box of chocolates
to your nephew, who's four, whom you're meeting
for the first time, hundreds of miles away.
I watched him nibble each one around
the edges--then devour or set aside.
This is my favorite, so I'm saving it for last.
Two men walk up to someone and empty
the back of his head with one shot,
leave him to spread on the sidewalk
like a broken bottle of wine.
I drive old country roads with the kid,
who's too smart to ignore. When we pass
the old church he says, There's a graveyard
in every town. Everyone dies
except us. We're conspiring more
chocolates, and I think that his wisdom
can keep us forever, like the cemetery stones
where we sit as I try to explain
why he should be less like my family,
and more like me. But I don't realize
the migraine the sugar will churn in his head,
the hornet's nest I will frenzy
by the end of the day when I face
the god-like wrath of my sister,
whose love is a straight-back chair,
but also a country-charm duck. And I'm not normal.
I know why she hid him from me as long as she did:
My friends hug trees with their cars,
shoot fire in their veins, are gunned down
by strangers--and for Godsake,
I force-fed my nephew a delicious razor blade.
Don’t I know anything? So I stand stupid
in the airport, a hangnail in the fist of travelers,
apprehending the absurd. I come home to
a dead plant in my window, a dead fish in my tank,
and who knows what other friends I should call just to check on.
Death is a cement mixer lurching beside me.
Walking up South Halsted's stretch
of vacant lots and wide spaces, rotted-shingle storefronts,
it isn't sorrow, but an opening of myself to the world
and its parking-lot truth that to love is to be
swallowed by something bigger than myself.
And don't I long for the exchange
of breadcrumbs waiting for pigeons
or table scraps finding a mouth?
Young mother pushing the baby carriage;
shopkeeper angling his ladder above me;
the woman who sells me candy
whose tattooed tear swears that the world
will always be what it was;
teenagers cradling orange pops and cigarettes
on the corner, who for all I know might
put bullets in me just for walking by;
my family and dead friends like burs stuck in my skin
or chocolates lodged in my throat.
The car swerves and misses.
I didn't realize I'd stepped in the street.
The horn trails off, and I'm lucky, I guess,
for all that does not happen. When I get home
I want to call my sister and say, I'm okay,
given the given. I want to tell my nephew
the truth his box of chocolates conceals:
we all die eventually, and no one knows when,
but maybe we're God's favorites,
maybe he'll save us for last.
Todd Heldt's first novel, Before You Were a Prophet, was published by
HQBooks through Lulu, inc. It's a humorous tale about death, guilt, god, rednecks, kleptomania, and William Carlos Williams scholars.