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Slipping By Degrees

ISSUE:  Winter 1991
Last night
Frank stood on his porch
and held his pistol out
and fired at the stars
He fired slow
and each shot was like
an exhalation from his soul
until at the end his soul
was as empty as his gun

He stood serene and whole
like Buddha
lines and shadows of his face
precise and pale
in street light
following the journey
of his soul in gunsmoke
above the trees

He has holes in him
he was not born with
nine of them
running boreholes through
taken standing up
One burst
up the recoil gradient
that augered muscle
and bone and lung
I was there
when his body opened
like a suitcase
tossed from a train
spilling blood and gut-heat
and imperishability
on a mountainside
twenty years ago

Had a radio on my back
I was the link
and Frank remembers my
through his paindream
or thinks he does
frantic variables of words
on the tactical net
how in the hell
do I tourniquet this?
I knelt beside him
held two fingers on his throat
while Cobra gunships
hunted overhead
for the men
who did this

Sometimes I think
he holds me to blame
for his living
knows how painless
it would have been
to die still pink with spirit
and youth
and not live each night
to be afraid to death
of dying
He thinks he has no right
to be alive
and lives illegally
the walking ghost of dead
on the black wall
what they might
have become
had they lived

Marijuana helps him
with the pain
the VA gives him drugs
to keep him docile
he drinks two six-packs
before noon,
a fifth of rum at night
takes his coke from a spoon
in the toilet

And all this
makes him strong again
and the world is nothing
and he can shoot his gun
at Heaven
from the porch
and be content

The past is still important
to the present
and the future
is a blind game
cold and hard like tundra
there is no way
to walk it all in time
Someday he will smile thinly
at the sky’s arch
when the gun stays up
when five bullets fired
leaves one
he may take it for himself
like a pill
full of wisdom and quiet
in streetlight


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