It’s always winter when I think of him,
gray skies, fog seeping up from the harbor
through the rougher streets of our town.
He’d scurry on icy walks,
past the saint-crammed Catholic gift shop—
a small skittish man glancing furtively.
Bored punks would turn as he passed,
then, forget it, they’d lean back, not worth the hassle….
And so he’d escape unscathed,
our neighborhood pilgrim, cross-wired
and benign, part of SSI’s ragged intelligentsia,
exhausted by his meds, but happy
to pin up flyers for galleries and open mikes.
And he was pleased to hover henlike
over his briefcase of smudged verses
typed off the paper’s edge, apocalypse
in cross-outs and coffee rings, where angels
fling down fire, the poor shake off coats of lead.
I thought what he wanted me to see
in the darkened church were apostles in blue
and red glass robes, their scrawny fingers stretched
toward heaven. But, no, he loved the small
expressionless moon-white faces set in each corner
like children peering in from the cold.
Blank souls, he said, waiting for birth into
our school of sorrows, wanting our bright clothes,
no matter where those colors come from.
Just to sit with them, he’d set out in winter dusk
through a warren of streets and half-streets
as mist thickened its glaze. Sometimes
the janitor would find him curled in a pew,
prayer book open to the place where you could
fill in the names of everything unwanted,
unfinished, given undignified ends.
And now for years to come, whoever turns
the pages of that book, searching for a sign,
will find his jittery ink, and not knowing
of the stones the kids sometimes threw,
or the bus that backed up and killed him,
they’ll just see these half-drawn waifs
staring back from the margins, as if in love
with every fumble and ache of flesh.
And over them—I dog-eared the page—
his bright scrawl, Don’t be afraid, Do not—
underscored three times—cry any more.