“Pilgrimage” by Tony Gloeggler

Tony Gloeggler


Think of the time you flew
into Albuquerque, the drive
from the airport, flat thirsty
red-brown land spreading
in all directions, a snow-capped 
mountain sitting on the horizon,
the adobe village, an old Navajo 
driving a creaky bus uphill, 
reciting rehearsed facts, wounded 
jokes meant for white folks
as the sun blistered down on ancient
dwellings haunted by ghosts 
of dry-boned medicine men,
young women who fled to the city,
bread frying over a high flame.

The faded purple Acamo t-shirt
is now tucked in your bottom 
drawer. You were taking a breath, 
running from your most recent 
heart wreck, trying to learn 
what it would mean to leave 
behind a boy, Jesse, you treated
as your only son, some future
you dreamed of building. After
learning how deep a night could grow
without New York City lights,
you woke early and drove hours
to stand in line with shuffling, hunched-
over old women who twisted,
entwined strings of black beads
in their fingers as Japanese tourists
dangled cameras from their necks.

You sat in a back pew, watched 
the women light candles, kneel, 
then fervently trace the sign
of the cross while you remembered
the legend of a bursting hillside 
light and a local priest finding
the miraculous crucifix
of Our Lord of Esquipulos
in the famished ground, 
carrying it to Santa Cruz, 
only to have it disappear 
three times and return 
unexplainably to the place 
it was first discovered. 

You ducked into the sacristy,
the sacred sand pit, its walls
lined and cluttered with discarded 
braces and crutches, hand-
made shrines attesting 
to its many miracles. 
As women with tears shining
on grateful faces prayed, 
you grabbed a fistful of dust, 
placed it in a see-through 
sandwich baggie, slipped it 
into the shirt pocket covering
your heart, and later hid it 
in your satchel for the flight home.

Further back, you’re the first son 
of your family’s second generation 
born in America. Grandparents, uncles, 
aunts and cousins celebrated
your every breath as God’s 
gracious gift until you turned
four years old and your legs
grew into heavy, dead weight
that hurt anytime you walked 
anywhere. Your parents, fearing 
polio like your Uncle Dom,
went to early morning masses,
lit green novena candles 
and started collecting money 
to send you on a pilgrimage
to Lourdes. Doctors took countless
tests, kept you in a hospital
for six months where nuns
somberly patrolled the halls
and the kid in the next bed, 
an orphan, with one wooden leg, 
one wooden arm, and a pirate hook 
for a hand, somehow had the same
last name as yours. Your parents
brought both him and you gifts,
talked of taking him home too
as you grew sick with jealousy.
When they finally gave a label
to your disease, they cured it
with a Frankenstein boot, 
a leg brace and hours,
months of physical therapy
that made you stick out,
a cripple, separated from the rest
of the neighborhood kids
and the money was spent
on a station wagon to drive
back and forth to clinic visits.

Then yesterday, after a technician 
with a hard-to-understand
Russian accent kept asking you
to breathe in, breathe out, 
hold it, now breathe regularly
while tracing, rubbing 
a tiny camera over your chest 
and belly in a chilly room 
for too long, the cardiologist 
proclaimed your aorta was too
wide, susceptible to a rupture 
that could instantly kill you 
like the actor who starred 
in that crappy seventies sitcom
Three’s Company. He described
the procedure, the high rate 
of success and the surgeon 
as a miracle worker with hands 
like God, an enlightened plumber, 
replacing a pipe, tightening a valve. 

Stunned by the news, you sat
silently. On the subway home, 
you remembered the actor’s name,
John Ritter, and remembered
how good he was in Sling Blade 
and you wished that you still 
believed in any kind of God 
sometimes. You wished 
you didn’t have to tell your mom
or miss another visit with Jesse,
wished you remembered a plumber 
other than Dan Akyroyd bent 
beneath an overflowing sink 
on a lonely Saturday night, 
the crack of his ass peeking 
over the top of his pants, 
poised for the next straight line, 
laughing at you for ever
feeling indestructible, safe.

from Rattle #48, Summer 2015
Tribute to New Yorkers

[download audio]


Tony Gloeggler: “A life-long resident of NYC, I was born in Brooklyn but left with my family during the white flight of the ’60s. I grew up in Flushing, now live in Richmond Hill, and helped open a group home for developmentally disabled kids in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, decades before the quasi cool hordes moved in with their bars and restaurants, laptops, nannies and doggies to mess up one more fine NY neighborhood. Writing started out for me as the place where I got my thoughts and feelings down when I had no other place to bring them. It is still that place, the place I go to first when I’m trying to figure things out, way before I can say something to either myself or anyone else. I wrote this one after some bad, out of nowhere, overwhelming medical news and connected it to times when I remembered feeling very similar. Then after working it out, making it feel as right and true as I could I gave it some air and showed it around, read it out loud …”

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