Troubled souls, if you will, must sleep by craft.
One I shared a bed with for a spell would find a seat
On the Northern Crescent Line night in,
Night out, was soon as she closed her eyes.
She began with what she knew: upcountry hometown,
Belle epoque station, the one-armed custodian
Killing time with an indolent broom. In her mind
The platform milled with the hubbub of departure
And bodies unlocking after last farewells.
Then that lurch, that shriek. That telling rhythm.
First to slip by were the rowhouses, then cramped backyards,
And she always waited for a certain picket fence
On which two girls in pinafores always perched
And faithfully waved. The train would snake longside
The riverís oxbows; the river was named for a minor saint;
The name of the saint was flaking off the water tower.
My presence, she told me, prolonged the journey.
She knew it would be one of those nights she ran out
Of riverfront and lowland, the smokestacks and warehouses
She had by heart, one of those nights she had to shift
All her attention to the interior of the compartment.
That meant more intricacy, more finegrained devisings:
The muffled slap of an endless gin game, the cherry tang
Of pipesmoke in defiance of code, the peacock feather
Flaring from a matronís hat in a risible arabesque.
And then the subject of her choice: perhaps a rhubarb
Over misplaced luggage and lamentable manners,
Perhaps a father reading aloud to his son, the son
Breaking in with imperious questions, the father exacting
And evasive by turns, the story resuming once again.
Sometime sheíd banter with the passenger beside her.
Sometimes sheíd begin a wobbly letter to her sister.
That sister, it turned out, was one of the waving girls.
She was the other one. I was another in a series of men
Hitched end to end, if you will, as the nights ground on
And the platform thronged and her breath honed its edge.
If I ever inferred the nature of what plagued her,
Itís forgotten. If I clutched in a clumsy gesture
More than once, itís been erased. But if I bear her in mind,
I know it will come to meóthe name of the river
And the town, that third-string pinewoods saints,
The lettering still peeling after all this time
On the water tower you can spot from the train.
I will begin the retouching with my customary firmness:
An admirable shade of imperial blue, letís say,
Crisply trimmed with white; a dip and a downstroke,
A downstroke and a dip, the same circumspect
And implicit mechanics Iíve employed so often
For the stenciled capitals of phantom storefront glass.
I will lay down as many coats as it takes.
Itís a trick I have, a technique I can depend on
When the minute hand churns and it gets so awfully late.
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