May 27, 2014

Bob Johnston

HAZEL, SOUTH DAKOTA

I

Just before sunset on the first day of May
a small breeze came down from the hills,
loitered in my back yard until dark,
then vanished, leaving behind
a faint aroma, a strange sweetness
with a message to me
from somewhere.

By September I’d forgotten the message,
or maybe I never understood it,
or maybe there was no message at all—
but something had lodged in my head
like a splinter just below the surface,
and I knew I had to go back
somewhere.

II

The house was just as I remembered it—
Small, white, with a peaked roof; front porch,
tiny lawn, back yard grown up to weeds,
wild plum trees, vines weighting down the fence.
Everything was there, frozen in time
for fifty years, waiting for me
to return.

Dusty street, cracked sidewalk,
chicken coop, outhouse,
rusty car up on blocks,
rock pile, plowed field.
Everything was there, except
the row of Russian olive trees,
vanished.

III

The room was waxed and polished,
ready for my first day of school.
Sunlight traced a pattern on the desks,
reflected onto the blackboards

and the map of the United States
and the Palmer Method alphabet
that circled the room.

I inhaled the odor of blackboards,
old chalk dust and new furniture polish.
An American flag stood in one corner.
The ancient plumbing gave off soft gurgles.
Two flies blundered against a windowpane
in perfect rhythm with the beat of the clock
we called Big Ben.

Fifty years hadn’t changed anything,
not even my beautiful red-haired teacher.
She sat at her desk, disembodied,
floating beneath a halo of sunlight,
book open, ready to read us a story.
I called out “Miss Hennessy,” and she smiled
as she disappeared.

IV

I headed west, homeward bound.

The Russian olives are blooming again,
and their strange aroma drifts down the canyon.
Finally, I know why I went back
to make the connection, to understand
the thread that binds me to the past,
to whenever it all began,
wherever.

from Rattle #20, Winter 2003