Air National Guard

“But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it feel this way to you?” —Kazuo Ishiguro

If you want to be a pilot,
grow up in a small town
where they answer the phone
at the auto parts store
with a loud “Yell-ow!”

And at the hair salon the talk
is neighbors and their little angels:
“When she sleeps we put it up in braids?
It’s got such a beautiful natural wave,
don’t you think?”

The stylists heckle, warming up.
“Hey! You took pictures with my phone!”
“What kind of insulting nickname can I give you?
Wait! Oh, hi Lola.”
“Hello. Hi.”
“How about Lolita? Muffin?”
“Do I look like a bran muffin to you?”
“Oh, you’ve been Muffin for years.
You have the coloring of a bran muffin.”
“It’s better than Lennie. We call Sam Lennie.
From Mice and Men.”
No, Lenny Kravitz! Because of the piercing stuff.”

“Boys, you coming back? We got a perm special.”
I wave it away, the girls from Central laughing.

Lunchtime, we’re on the bypass
by the base parkway,
me and Blake, him with a Double Deluxe
and me just with the fries,
watching a T-41 trying to land
in a cross-wind.
“You could kill yourself in one of those things,”
he gets the words out, chewing,
wiping his chin.
And I say, yes.
Yes. You could.

Fetching Lili’s Ashes

A bill from the urgent care center
in Mesa, Arizona,
is addressed to Lisa Steinhoff,
whoever she was:
no one called Steinhoff lives
on Painted Rock Trail today.
I lean over the console of the truck,
write “Not at this address!”,
and slip it in the outgoing mail.

Ten days ago Saturday
we put our Russian Blue down,
after midnight, bundling her crate
into the Subaru for the long drive,
to the only open vet, far out of town.
I sweet-talked her, our little girl
(though in people years
she was sixty-four, or sixty-five).

But repeating the sad drive again,
leaving the clinic again,
this time in full sun June
I carry the box with her ashes
to the car, gently, like a newborn,
cradling the deep blue bag,
the ribboned sleeve from the crematorium.

I half expected to lift the lid
for her last lesson of dust,
but the box is fastened shut:
Spanish cedar, corners rounded,
joints seamless, sweetly smelling
in the unseasonable heat.

And on the forty-mile route back north
despite myself, knowing she is not her body,
not at this address,
I talk to the cedar box,
warm in the cab of the truck
warm as her head was in the moment before,
her ears then, like old carpet,
ragged with age.

Music Box

A girl in Odessa is holding a candle,
one of those showy candles
topped with a brass carousel
from which hang
a ring of brass stars.
It’s my favorite candle, she says,
because when the heat rises,
the metal spins, the stars dance.
See? It’s already half gone, the
glass cup of candle half empty.

She is trying to remember
the English words for a music box,
but she only knows the Russian.
It’s all she speaks well.
A Russian Ukrainian, waiting for
the bombs.

She blows against the carousel,
unwilling to light it.
She is trying to distract herself,
trying to distract us.
Музыкальная шкатулка, she repeats,
frustrated, and the words
come out of her mouth like silk.
Muzykal’naya shkatulka
A casket? she guesses.
They are caskets that sing a melody.
Caskets that sing a melody.

She fingers the candle.
One day we will light it together,
she says. For now, though.
The present isn’t worth much:
distraction, the need to connect,
so you can drop fear off,
like a child at daycare.
But the future!
when we can light the candle,
and spin the stars on ribbons of heat,
each circus breath a memory:
a casket,
rows of caskets,
each with a melody.

Saddle Ridge

Two boys ride their bikes
from one corner to another across the north field.
The realtor had told us a local church owned the land.
It’ll never be built on, she promised.
And at least for now it hasn’t been: a vacant rag-and-bone lot,
God-made for weekend racing.

The boys are maybe ten…twelve?
They fly off the field too fast to compare.
Nothing in their lives will ever again be this uncomplicated —
the gentle slope of it, the trail rubbed to hardtack,
the blood oath company of boys,
and down the block, a pirate map of streets
with names like Campfire, Horse Soldier, Medicine Man.
Familiar home-ended streets.

Years from now, too many years to see,
when they’re a little worn themselves,
and divorced in one way or another from their deep contentment,
this will seem like saving,
a possible grace.
Mild October, the air whistling and racing,
and their sharp shouting rising
like seagulls on a sunlit sea.

Wind Farm

On Happy Jack Road
the great wind turbines, like apocalyptic herons,
big-beaked birds that eat everything,
even the sky, sweep across the highway.
They stand so close to the shoulder
the shadows of their hungry legs
cut our path to pieces:
swooosh! in front, the road ahead sectioned;
swooop! behind, at the bumper, the past receding,
portioned out to orphan-memories.

But we know better, don’t we?
It’s all oil and gas in Wyoming,
roughnecks and roustabouts, in a state where
most of a town’s treasure is in pumpjacks.
I sit behind a pickup heading out Wind River way,
or to Rawlins, and he has a sticker on the crew cab
that says, Paid for by Oil & Gas.

The wind holds its tongue until the early morning,
when it moans across sagebrush flats,
three days straight, gusting to fifty.
It has tried to tell us, shoring snow,
snorting and kicking dirt like an unbroke pony:
sometimes you can’t tell the difference
between what you are
and what you think you are.

I should know, gripping the wheel of my own truck
on Happy Jack Road,
eight years a homeowner, black coffee on the terrace,
watching the sun in its tight circle.
Yes, you know better, says the Laramie wind.
This was always you,
the past peeling off behind like ropeburn skin,
the blacktop slipping under these spinning tires
like truth.

Body Temperature

Every morning, I take my temperature
with a digital thermometer I stick in my ear:
there’s a nasty bug going around,
and I try to stay ahead of these things.
My left ear is warmer.
I favor my cool right ear, a full nine degrees
below what they tell us is normal.

Somewhere between these two extremes,
the outer limits of left and right,
I imagine a sun
like a bright yolk in the vacuum
of my galaxial head,
space and not gray matter,
and a succession of planets.

You live on the most beautiful blue pearl
in a broad, righteous orbit.
You send out signals into the void,
telling us of magical trees,
your love of animals, falling water.
Some of your messages reach the right ear,
the cold one, where a few drifting bodies
collect in the ice belt,
like homeless men around a grate.

They’ve just heard
that they are no longer considered planets,
perhaps no longer even a part
of this distant sun’s system.
They complain.
I hear their voices when I untie myself
into sleep, on my right side.

They listen to news of your impossible oaks,
cascades that make men weep,
the mothering whisper of the wild,
a lullaby they might hear just this once,
this winter-shortened night.