“Death and Tacos” by Nathaniel Whittemore

Nathaniel Whittemore


Waiting in line at a taco stand for my number to be called
I started talking to a six-year-old kid kicking his little foot against
A curb and waiting for his dad to come out of the bathroom.
And he said, “Why do you cough so much?”
And I said, “Because I have cancer.”
And he said, “Bummer.”
And I said, “Yep.”
And he said, “Does it hurt?”
And I said, “Only when I breathe.”
And he said, “Why don’t you hold your breath?”
And I puffed out my cheeks like Louis Armstrong and
Let him see it and held it for as long as I could
Before exploding into a hacking eruption of
Stupid sounds and saliva.
And he laughed.
And I coughed and laughed.
And he said, “Feel better?”
And I said, “A bit.”
And I showed him how much better with my
Thumb and index finger. And pointed at a green thread
of mucous that had dribbled out onto my chin
He said, “Gross.” And wiping it off
I said, “Yep.”
And he said, “My granddaddy had cancer before he died on the hospital.”
And I said, “You mean in the hospital?”
And he said, “Yeah on the hospital.”
And I said, “Oh, yeah?”
And he said, “He used to give me candy all of the times I ever saw him.”
And I said, “Sorry kid, I don’t have any candy.”
And, deflated, he said, “Are you gonna die on the hospital?”
And I said, “You mean in the hospital?”
And he said, “Yea, are you gonna die on the hospital?”
And I said, “Probably.”
And he said, “OK.”
And, upon giving that gracious consent, the boy’s dad came out and
The boy said, “Well, bye!” And I said, “See ya.”
And he ran off.
And, for a while, between the two of us,
Dying became so very ordinary, like candy or tacos or semantics,
And death itself suddenly just this obnoxious third-wheel
A pitiful nuisance with nothing better to do with his time
Than to tag along with me and this six-year-old kid.
And I sat smiling in the sun and imagining death at the moment,
A sad sack of lonely-self slumped somewhere in the distance,
As I waited for my number to come up.

from Rattle #29, Summer 2008


Nathaniel Whittemore: “This wrong world can either beat the poetry out of you or it can beat it out within you in long brawling measures of tough and fisted line. And timing and rhythm are well enough but not all. Pace your precious self for longevity or go all gloriously out in the first round, either way it beats, at you or in you, this wrong world. And it’s fine to try and make it right. But to make it write, even when it resists you, especially when it resists you, this is the only strategy it never seems to anticipate. This is the single blow that it cannot counter. So I write to rattle the strategy of life. I come out swinging and singing, hoping, in the end, to wear it down to nothing but sucker-punches and death; cheap-shots and a bell that never stops tolling in a roundless match. I make this wrong world write for me the only way I know how.”

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