Lately, every book I pick up is about someone
talking about some loved one dead or dying—
Alzheimer’s, cancer, old age. Me, I have five
dead people. Two of them are my parents. The
other three surprise me, how much they come
around. Michael said I was the first person he
ever met that came to Montana from somewhere
else. He suddenly realized that if I could get in
there must be a way out. At Capital High in 1977,
I sat next to him in Latin. Every school reject and
loser was in that room. Mrs. Swor, god bless her
heart, rallying us all to conjugate dead verbs.
Michael lived in a doublewide on a treeless strip
of land 20 miles outside of town. Vehicle carcasses,
stacks of tires, filled the yard. Michael’s room,
downstairs, tucked in the back, was covered with
posters of France, Times Square, the Titanic.
Swimming trophies clogged the tops of furniture.
Michael never wanted me to meet his father
with his military haircut, cheek full of chew. He
used to hold Michael upside-down and flush his
piece of shit head in the toilet. When Michael’s
acceptance to Georgetown came, his father muttered,
Niggerville, and left the room. After high school
Michael and I caught a Greyhound, rode three days
to see A Chorus Line and Macy’s. I got to stand
next to him the first time he saw an ocean. The night
he died I chose his star—the furthest on the left
in the belt of three stars in the constellation of Orion:
Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka. I wasn’t expecting three,
that’s just how it turned out. Michael, Krista, Bill.
Though in life, that close together, they’d probably
fight, call each other names—faggot, whore, bum.
I put Krista in the middle, so she has someone on
either side. At 22 she’s the youngest and hates
to be alone. Krista had the biggest, brightest smile.
Her nose only looked that way because of how
often some guy punched her out. She never stopped
believing the next one who called her girlfriend
would make everything alright. With Jake or Rocky
or T-Man, she was happy ‘til sooner or later she’d
crawl in bruised and bleeding, eyes swollen shut,
bones she didn’t know were broke. At St. Agnes
in Manhattan, we sat in darkened stairwells below
stained glass windows covered with cardboard and
tape. She traced cracks in the marble steps while
she spoke. Krista wouldn’t want anyone to know
what happened when she was little—but she
didn’t care who knew about her five dollar blow
jobs in Grand Central, or about dealers that kept
her high in hotel rooms the first of every month.
Once I helped her write a letter to her sister in New
Jersey. She worked on it every day for weeks. She
wanted to spell the words right: promise, sobriety,
forgiveness. Bill was in his 60s when I met him.
I wasn’t sure, at first, if he was homeless. Maybe
it was his age, or the way he held his head up, or
how he looked me in the eye. Housing folks couldn’t
see past the arson, alcoholism, years of prison.
When he finally got his apartment, he was close to
70. He moved in and right off adopted two stray
cats with open sores and missing bits—a piece of
ear, an eye, a limb. In his living room he built
an altar decorated with flyers door-to-door Jehovah’s
pass out. Bill lived with evil spirits. He used God,
alcohol and a radio blaring to keep them quiet. Once
he told me when they were in the room. One was
seated in the corner, the other standing by the doorway.
Bill’s left eye twitched, he hunched his shoulders,
he said not telling was better, more normal. Michael
got AIDS sometime in the ’80s and rode it out until
1995. The last time I saw him, his boyfriend he was
living with was out on a date. Michael said he was just
grateful the boyfriend let him stay around. He wasn’t
angry or sad, and he wasn’t like those noble dying
types on TV or in the movies. He didn’t keep his sense
of humor and he didn’t spout metaphysical pearls of
wisdom. He was frightened and defeated. He kept
repeating how he would have liked to take his mom
to Paris. When Krista died, I was upstate at a conference.
Someone heard, OD’d, someone heard, beat-up.
I didn’t call the morgue; I didn’t try to find out.
Bill died in his own apartment. And near the end,
when he couldn’t make it to the toilet, his cats were
fed, their litter clean and they had fresh catnip toys.
Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka. My star’s up there too.
Maybe Bellatrix, but that’s female warrior. More likely
Rigel, whose name comes from its location in relation
to the others in the constellation—the left foot.
—from Rattle #30, Winter 2008
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention