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The Imperative

ISSUE:  Fall 2006

In the fluorescent stain of the Gas-N-Go,
where sausages parch on rollers and the bun steamer huffs,

he shifts his weight from foot to foot,
idling inside his solitude and held within what

I imagine is the sorrow in his father’s eye.
On his puffed tongue

doughnut pulps against the roof of his mouth.
A sugary liniment glazes the rind of his chin.

I am extra long at the cash machine,
sheepishly counting my two twenties

once, twice for good measure. I read my receipt.
I turn to the newspaper rack for distraction.

A trucker thumbs through his change, hanging back
hoping the path to the front counter clears of his embarrassment.

I keep them in my sidelong stare
until the father, his face settled to stone,

peels a sticky hand from the mouth and leads him out.
We hear the son’s low braying—

moan mixed with spittled bewilderment,
someone isn’t happy—

hear the father’s quiet tones calming him as if,
as if he were … what?

What swallows the heart and spits it out?
See the trucker turn his face to the gum rack, the bright

comforting row upon row.
He pulls down his cap.

The cashier leafs through People magazine.
See me smudge the newsprint.

See us weigh our desire to protect and destroy.
Coelacanth-boy you have surfaced from

the caves of our genetic past to mock us, to dare us to
sadness, to a pity you cannot know

because it is that tremulous
shame we have saved for ourselves to save ourselves.

Now you leave without tasting our falseness.
See our relief.

But see how we wait desperately, await your return
that you might feed upon our fellow feeling.

Come back to the safety of our goodwill,
ravenous, and punish us all.


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