Charlie in His 101st Year

Zinc oxide on the hands he recalls as chalky
resin like a smear of lead, another
failure of color in the coal-blasted rail yard,
the smear on the rails through the steam,
the earthy smell of coal smoke
in his face like a mean wind,
through the train’s great iron hisses
and the shivering screams of the rails.

He would wrestle his orders out in Dutch
at the bullied demand of German railmen
who barked at the English of Newcomers,
the lumpy Poles and scrubbed Welsh come
to the Lehigh Valley. Can he remember this
every night, staring into the middle horizon
of his solitude, borne of his longevity,
while the night outside is wet in Queens?

His wife died so long ago the dent in the mattress is gone.
The front room is a table lit with candy,
the brightness of sugar against the peach walls.
His rooms are still and dustless
as air unmoved, more photograph than shelter.

In Fort Dix the rooms were tented canvas,
coarse as his steam hardened skin, their color
a new smear over the short commands.
He taught men to wield rifles
and the ornaments of their uniforms,
their faces taut with the shine of plenty,
bellies lean but thick with meat,
arms bulked like trains.
The cabin’s dirt lawns were ringed in stone
and yews, tidy and hedged, kept the dust down.
A thousand men in lines comforted him.

In a restaurant, the waiter leans down
to place Charlie’s hand close to the fine line
on a credit card slip, so he can sign.

The yews around his house grew well,
and now block his view. A penance
for prudence. Sometimes he wonders
how pleased he might have been to die in a penumbra
of booze, by a fire, among the poplars of Palmerton,
within earshot of the only sounds he still hears from there:
trains shifting rails, a conductor’s howl, a mad bell.

He remembers the soldiers: missing teeth
and blue tattoos, the killers and con men,
scholars and farm boys, all toting smokes
and bibles fit to the palms of their hands.

He grew out of the Great War, made a life in commerce
of dreams, a film man grinning at the advent
of sound. Crowded theatre in Hollywood, he lurked
in the back, felt faces wince at the first sounds
of war on the newsreels. He thought of trains.

In the decades he spent feeling the fading of light,
reels of Victory Gardens and war bonds, the sweet
riveter and the lack of chocolate, he tasted the domestic
suffering of the grandest home gestures. He
was born the year Whitman died

the first breaths of air quickened with the death
of optimism, the death of the frontier, the innocent
traveler, and he spent a life chasing that first
taste he never knew. Instead he inhaled the flash
of gun carbon, the coal smoke of locomotives, gasoline
ozone and a whiff of fallout.

He thinks the yew outside his window has spirit
moving through cells in a way still unexplained—
the faith in that process the closest he gets to hope,
the last shreds he has of belief in something
beyond his staunch acknowledgment of time,
as he has aged beyond even the last suspicions
of a God.

He thinks he has an idea, now,
of what God could be—
his vision marbles, and he fumbles quickly for his tea,
sips, long since accustomed to burning his tongue.
The taste is metal, sharp, and clear.

:: Gabriel Welsch, Dirt and All Its Dense Labor (2006)

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