which is why at first

I don’t recognize her.

Then she smiles.

 

Forty years ago we were a couple

of kids slinging burgers and fries,

me a white boy, five years her junior

 

and in love. Everyone was,

with this blessed virgin of the barrio.

Her long hair like the silk that

sent Marco Polo chasing across a continent,

and slender legs of the kind that caused

the Greeks to launch a thousand ships

on their way to sack Troy.

 

She held her own with the toughest

gang members, taunting,

“Ese mon, didn’t see you in church last Sunday?”

Ten minutes later she was gracing

the parking lot of the burger stand,

the fantasy of bushy-headed surfers

about to make the 50-mile

trek to the beach.

 

Every guy would have sacrificed

his left testicle to … you know …

wake up next to her in the morning.

 

She married, divorced,

married and divorced again –

from what I hear.

A chance encounter

every five years or so.

A hug, we’d catch up,

go our separate ways.

 

Later my wife and I

tried ballroom dance.

She was there, creating her own

world in her partner’s arms.  

I asked my wife if I could dance with her.

“What do you think?” she

said with a look.

Another decade and we had

side-by-side P.O. boxes, crossing

paths once a month.

 

I do the math. She’s got to

be 65. A few extra pounds,

but still a looker.

 

The hat bothers me, though.

It’s not her. Not something

this woman would wear.

 

She sees me. A hug.

It’s not just a hat,

but something to hide the evidence

 

of the ravages of the chemicals

they have pumped into her body …

of the chemotherapy to fight the cancer.

 

Of this blessed virgin of the barrio.

He drives it when he’s in town visiting family.

Other times it drips a Rorschach of fluids

onto the driveway of the house he owns in Needles,

a desert city that’s never been the same

since the railroad left, followed by

Tony a few years later.

But this river truck gets him around,

and over the bridge to

a half-acre he owns in Arizona.

 

The dash is a cracked mosaic,

baked by the desert sun.

Blankets cover the sagging bench seat.

Bought it from a railroad fellow in Kingman

seven years ago for eight hundred.

The guy was asking a grand.

‘75 was a good year for the Chevy Custom-Deluxe:

a 350 V-8 and three-on-the-tree.

 

When that truck was new you could chirp the tires in third gear.

 

But new was almost four decades ago,

when Tony had a much smaller waist.

Now it chugs along, just above a stall.

You’re surprised when the speedometer nudges forty,

past boarded-up restaurants, abandoned motels,

shuttered banks, the house where Tony grew up –

the places he visits when he comes back.

The odometer says thirty thousand and change,

the third or fourth time it’s been there. 

A while back someone repainted it the same color, white,

spraying over the rust and everything else.

 

Now there a lot of things painted on that truck that don’t need to be. 

 

Last summer the engine was overheating –

oil in the water – a blown head gasket.

Tony gave a fellow on the rez’ $300 to fix it. 

Got it back at Thanksgiving, but the heater doesn’t work.

 

Tony shakes his shaggy head. "What are gonna do? As long as it runs."

 

Besides, you never drive a river truck any farther than

you are willing to walk when it breaks down.

 

Once this truck was new, with gleaming paint,

that new-car smell, and an engine that blended

with the symphony of desert sounds. 

Now the cab looks like the inside of a McDonald’s trash can.

Smells like one, too. As for the sound of the engine, well,

you know when Tony’s in town.

 

After Vietnam Tony taught

Spanish at the high school, but found more money

in the big city, selling mobile homes, vacation properties,

new cars. He’ll retire and return to Needles

in a few years, throw out whatever relative

is squatting in his house, and spend his days happy,

driving a dying truck around a dying town.

The diagnosis, at nine years old,

chronic depression.

Melancholy would set in, he

would disappear, my son searching for him

on darkened streets. His mother

locked in the bathroom,

deep sobs on the phone to my wife.

 

Freshman year in high school, always

intelligent and sensitive beyond his years.

But the voices

In his head accelerated their siege—

Screaming his name.

A week short of his fifteenth birthday

he squeezed the trigger.

 

Chelsea was his favorite soccer club.

At the service everyone

wore the jersey of

the English team. The auditorium

a blanket of royal blue.

 

The approach of this first anniversary

haunts my wife and me—

a tightening in the chest, in the throat,

in my thoughts, even the binds

between us.

Late at night we ponder God’s plan.

Is there a plan? Is there a God?

Another grandson lives with us, a year

younger than the one that left.

Raised him since he was four (it’s a long story).

 

Yesterday in his room, collecting clothes

for the laundry, I saw his Chelsea

jersey draped over a chair, the wrinkles

smoothed out.

I asked my wife.

 

“He’s been wearing it to

bed the last couple of nights,”

she said. “In the morning he

lays it out.

Probably feels like we do.”