Sutliffe Bridge

You wouldn't know about the bridge, bar and store
unless you were local, but now that the flood-
waters are down, everyone is coming to stand
and stare at the empty space: half a bridge gone,
grabbed in the river's fist, twisted and dragged
downstream to where its dark skeletal tips break
the gentle surface, pointing awry at the sky
like rusty hindsight exclamations of distress.

People murmur that the lost half should be brought back.
It could be retrieved, restored--just a matter
of allocating the money and equipment.
But will the county ante up? It was an old
bridge with scabrous cement piers, wooden planks
that roared like thunder when you drove
over them, and diminutive spans shedding
flakes at every vibration--the puce metallic bits
freckling the roadway until the wind blew
them away. There's a newer bridge upstream--
it survived this flood and looks good for a few more.

The Sutliffe store used to sell everything from seeds
to paraffin to aspirin to boots. But it's been fifty
years and now the high tin-ceilinged room--with its
bounty of varnished shelves and drawers and marble
countertops, its glass display cases a remote
emphasis of emptiness and dust, its spindle
of parcel string still hanging at shoulder height
near the silent brass register--serves only as a way
to pass from the original bar to the recent dining
addition out back, so new that its exterior
still reads, KEVLAR KEVLAR KEVLAR, from every angle.

They do a booming business in Old Milwaukee pencil-
necks, fried bluegill baskets, and chili dogs. You can
eat inside while the jukebox skips and mingles
with talk of tractor parts and DVDs, or go
out to the riverbank where a few guys
have their lines in, casting for trout or bass
around the weeds under the bridge.

Imagine, after the flood with what newly brilliantined
suddenness the sunlight must have struck through
the water where there had been the shade of the bridge
for more than a hundred years--weeds and fish shocked
in an aqueous net of umber turning to neon green,
skated upon by the movements of clouds.

Visitors in the know write their names on dollar bills
and tape them to the low ceiling and walls of the bar--
a glaze of long-forgotten singles ambered by age
and grease and smoke. The old ladies like it here,
parking their walkers along the wall, and the farmers
wanting lunch and conversation, and the Harley
riders who come through the screen door in groups
with dust from the gravel road blunting the shine
on their leather. Since the bridge went out, bar business
has been better than usual. No one needs strong
black thread or lampwicks anymore, but they still
want potatoes piping hot out of the oil and a place
to congregate, and this small destruction--no human
deaths involved--mean nature's power affirmed,
the satisfaction of fretting over an impersonal loss,
and a blank in the air that looks like change.

:: Anne Pierson Wiese, in The Southern Review (Summer, 2010)


High and Low

She never complained of the indignity,
the way, still crouched on the floor,
she had to gather up the boxes,
listen to the mocking of the tissue paper
rattling beneath her fingertips,
face the last whiffs of the rebels
whose owners had rejected her, saying things like,
"They pinch," or "My toe rubs at the front,"
or, worst of all, because she never knew why,
"No, I don't think they're right."
Sometimes, remembering the state of their nails,
or noticing that their socks hadn't matched,
or that they had, out of vanity,
worn a size too small for too long,
she would feel superior, vindicated,
when they walked away, their feet
carrying the same weight as before,
because their wallets were no lighter,
and their hearts had not been touched.
In these moments, she would remember her own feet,
tiny like those of a Japanese princess,
so slender she needed the elusive Slim,
and she would bury her hatred of them
in the shoe boxes, like coffins,
that lined the shelves of her sanctum,
the place where they were never allowed,
the room where she would disappear,
keeping them in her power for a few minutes,
checking on whether she had it,
the sequined pump, the black spike heel,
the Italian loafer, the ruby-red slippers
that would work their charms, cast their spells,
whisk them from lowly earth to the highest clouds,
if only she could produce it, in 8 1/2 AAA.
Sometimes, she would keep them in suspense,
pretending she had overlooked it, bringing out
boxes of others, unsuitable to their dreams:
navy-blue walking shoes, heavy-soled wing tips,
solid Oxfords when they asked for pastel sandals.
Sometimes she even convinced them that these were what
they wanted--she dropped words like cushioned impact
and fallen arches--and they nodded, worried,
frowning a bit as they agreed to take them.
But these were the ones she despised the most,
they were too easy, pushovers in their fallen nylons,
and when she retired, after thirty-eight years,
she spent most of her time barefoot in her garden,
all the shoe boxes in her house dusty except one,
which contained the only thing she had ever wanted:
cerise patent leathers with satin bows,
still one size too large for their owner.

:: Holly Hildebrand, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poems, Stories, and Photographs


Calling Out the Days

Click here to read Lois Williams' poem (and a fiction excerpt) at the Gist Street online archives.


Love of Lines: Notes for an Apprentice Shingler

The injuries are small ones,
the blade slips from the cedar
slat to the kneeling knee,
or the plane slides
off the shingle's edge
and shaves the thumb's knuckle.
Splinters are surprisingly
rare, but when the hands
are cold, the hammer glances
the galvanized nail
and slams the horny one,
pinching and blistering
the pellicle. This
is the worst.

What we labor over,
a swayback beach house,
rests on a rheumatic wharf,
our task to pluck
the worn wood scales,
add new bridgework, a shield
of George Washington teeth,
clamped against adversity.
We begin with the shingle iron
slipping it all along the virgin
backside of loose dentures,
and pull so sjakes fly off
in our faces, crack and splinter,
the sharp dry notes narrating
fifteen-plus years of weather.
Like dog years, this is ancient
beyond thinning and brittleness.
Where we find rot, we chisel out
the grainy porridge and fill
the gap with new pine,
thick wedges for warmth.

Wood chips in our eyes
make us cry a little,
but mostly we keep right on
through the small disasters
to batten down before nightfall,
our eyes on the suture--
horizon stitching low
grey sky to our dark Atlantic.
Tar paper (or a new slick
synthetic stock that doesn't rip
and bears a name too New Age
for song) is whack-stapled
to weary ship-salvage boards,
top layer always over bottom
to keep rain water from seeping
back to wood. Then the sweet
new cedar shields we extract
from fresh bundles and fit,
side flush to side
and hammer in twice, milk
oozing from glat four-penny
heads, the soft white fur
of mold, like premature infant
fuzz, rising from wet wood
into the crisp autumn
turn of air.

Chalk lines are best
when workers hold each end,
on ereaching to the center
to snap, the blue powder
mapping a million points
along a line so straight
the day's doubts are deleted
in its sure direction.
But a course of shingles
followed by another and another
parading up the house--these
hands saluting, soles of tree,
puerile soldiers sweet
as puberty, pressed side to side
so no one stands taller,
though some are fatter,
"hippos," and some are "weasel"--
thin, their bodies set
like brickwork so no two seams
meet--all the bathos of the week
is buried here. Lines
link lines to what we love
in these long hours, the wood
wine of it, the weighted plunge
and smack of hammer and nail,
the hard grip, hammer handle
to palm, the knock knock knock
answering back from neighboring
houses and street, wood and nail
and wood, even the smeared blood
marking the rough facade.
We swing and drum the day.


And when we finish, the lines,
stacks of horizons, paths to
an exacting place, meeting at trim
and window, foundation and roof,
are what we've made. Lines
where cold, rain, wind,
sleet, sun and snow end. Lines
we step across the street
to judge, and when they're fine
they're fine, and when they fail
they haunt. Order is easy to
plan for, hard to achieve. This
is what houses are about--
planes that meet along degrees
we trust. Lines that say,
The weather is up to you.

We unfasten our nail aprons
as the sun sends its light
into China's day. Toss
into the toolbox tape measure,
plane and knife,
hammer, chalkline and coping
saw, and head home to husband
or girlfriend or dog, or house--
house, bless it, though it
doesn't save us from ourselves.
And when we sleep, it is
the sleep of lines well made,
or lines that are not well,
marginally mis-measured,
but in our dreams slanting
earthward or rising toward
some inevitable convergence,
the confusion of infinite touch,
and so we return to the house
and remove by glance alone,
five fresh courses
to correct our quarter-inch mistake.

When we wake, the error
dissolves into morning,
compulsion keeling into
the undefined plane of day
and its incorrigible knots.
In a year the high wheat
of the wood will fade to blue-grey,
the seams will open a crack,
for the wood has dried and shrunk.
The smell, once fecund as forests,
will be salted, and somewhere else
staging assembled, a house
stripped, a dog amused
at what trouble humans go to,
dangling their booted feet
at the face of a house
as the hammers hound the quiet
of day, as the afternoon arcs
around our deep imperfections,
and we measure with expectation
another course, another line.

:: Sara London, The Tyranny of Milk