We have no heat left for showers
and the washing up. The instructions
to relight the pilot are detailed,
patient—but leave us no warmer.
Grease hangs on our pans.
How quickly we dry ourselves,
and how eager our ablutions.
I am thinking of years ago before
our marriage, my summer pilgrimage
to the Jains’ holy place and its village.
For me a cold-water tourism:
gleam of wet on the face
each morning, then slow climb
to the beatific Bahubali statue,
seven hundred vertiginous steps
to the temple at his feet. A shriveled
old woman had been carried
on a stretcher all this way, lay
panting under prayers for release.
I watched the pair of attendants
lift her down again, confident
in their negotiation of distance
from hope to resignation. How much
longer it took me to follow,
as the steps seemed to grow more
narrow and grudging every dozen.
Or was it that the June heat
in Shravanabelagola implied
the sharp breath I would release
next morning when my cupped hands
would bring a portion of iron-rust
faucet water to my cheeks and closed
eyes? All this on my knees. Standing,
I would think again of the woman
and her pair of handlers in white shorts,
disappearing into the crowd
of supplicants and market voices.
The air grew still at noon, hinted
monsoon at dusk. Bats circled
overhead; dust settled
in the streets for our long
dark, our long wait.
Not Her Real Name
The Book Barn, last of its kind in town—
head down N. Main, turn left onto Texas
when I pass Rooster’s BBQ,
park on the side street next to
Anderson’s Boot Emporium.
The front room is mostly SF and romance,
trusted rent-paying residents. On the back wall,
the classics shelf shares a half-dozen
copies of Jude the Obscure with smoky
Galsworthies and Pearl Bucks.
The former owners were near-silent,
ghosted in their teacher-retirement
with a pile of Adams receipt books stiffed
on the checkout table, and Pall Mall
coffee, bitter as beetroot ash.
They sold out in the late 90s to metal-boogie
Jeannie, hair feathered from Lake Charles,
her Black Sabbath burbling so gentle
I can’t be sure it’s supernaut,
or children of the lowing grave.
One Saturday I stop in to ask after
books on Australia. I’ve been studying
paintings of the Blue Mountains, stirring
miles of peak-pierced clouds till
thumbs stain with pale froth.
Jeannie has just the one. She’s been reading
The Fatal Shore, takes me to the back
room’s travel and trades. For half an hour
we share anecdotes of the antipodal
expeditions we will never take, then
just as her Maiden mixtape winds down
she says: The Barn will be closed next week,
I’ll be on my honeymoon. We’ll spend
two nights on the Riverwalk, then
head west for Taos and the thin air.
Months pass. I’m back home for a sentimental
haircut at the Trophy, and recall that the Barn’s
back room dusts some oddities, above all a two-volume
set of Miss MacIintosh, My Darling
for a sweet, sticky $6.50.
I am the only customer, maybe for weeks.
The new husband (presumably), bearded and chub-
cheeked, lords in his orange flannels on a spindly stool
behind the register, gut inched
a half-inch more than my own.
I pull out a ten to pay. Bear-boy leans back,
arms folded, barks: You have a customer!
A faint groan, and Jeannie pulls herself from
the cool linoleum—she’s been curled there
shivering with fever at his feet.
Jeannie makes change wordless, eyes narrowed
to slices of grey rotting gouda. Her lips are pocked
with pits, scarred with dryness. She pushes the thick
tome across the counter, swallows, sinks
again to the ground I can’t see.