Between the Bars
for Elliott Smith
I see the person I was before walking up the rubber steps
into that Portland bus to the carpet factory, saving
for a red-eye back to you. Those days my spirit roused,
drank & slept. I read heroin in the cables of the blood,
saw it gathered in the throng stumbling from the Rose
Garden on rope-bridges of mist outside Starbucks.
This was ‘96, after three months of waiting by the door
for your letters. I pinned my hopes to his music of absence,
the thinnest of griefs slipped into pot-addled reveries,
I followed roommates, learning to break, put English
on the ball, drinking Hefeweizens in The Silver Dollar,
Satyricon, McMenamin’s. Odwalla’s in the morning, Camels
& that bus, bracing hard against its own breathing-
then evening, damp West Coast nights that amplify weakness.
I’d savor the wait for my stop to Either/Or, thinking
I was running “Speed Trials,” that I wasn’t selling out
to the snake in “Alameda,” making plans to catch my own
stupid kicks to make me feel as I also moved minor to minor,
to open the rusted heart to the melody of drinking doors.
I hoped to find him in Olympia, but by then, I’d missed
last call. I took his double-tracked voice as balance,
who knew young what I found old, fragility’s
no clothing in the cold. It’s true, what he sang:
they want you or they don’t.
The Electric City, Skin-neck-titty, The Place
Beyond the Pines. Albany’s little brother,
Saratoga’s black sheep, too good for Rotterdam,
near enough to Ichabod Crane, Upstate
does not mean Syracuse, though I found Rochester
& my way to Chingachgook. I’ve slurred my way
to Niskayuna with Union Street on my mind.
New York, baby- Simms & Hostetler, LT, Ewing,
Starks & Albany Street, Gravel Gerties, glass-mouth
& a SUNY pipe, Rose Garden, sex in the Coffin.
When you were ripe, I was rotted. There were
innocences, there were Houlihans, there were
stone bench evenings smoking Jim’s Balkan Sobraine,
there were Rose Garden slides lit afire with kerosene,
egg-tossing to the Beastie’s “Eggman,” mushroom vistas
& acidified dawns, afternoons of Ummagumma
at Bubb’s, the gentle frenzy of “It Takes Two.”
Down Rugby Road I rode no hands, mouth full
of the rain, thinking myself a part of the electricity,
years before I read Lear, now I’ve two daughters
& a hoary beard, no madness but half my childhood
friends are dead, no impediment, no bridle, no metal-
blood bit to keep me squaring up with you.
I’m sure you hold yourself blameless.
When I cleaned up, some years ago, I drove
to the old orchard, into fine October fields
thinking that was when the fruit was full but I was
a month late, & three bites in, sickly acidic.
Home to visit, I wander Saratoga’s tony stores, children in earshot,
turning snow-globes upside down, to see how the fake
flakes descend upon a thumb-sized white Buddha.
It’s not ivory, that much is sure, how the store’s arranged
to always overflow, how the square footage bloats
& every cranny boasts an apogee. Again, my mother’s
wandered off into the children’s section, hands full of gifts
for no occasion. A polished couple steps around me
in my sullen lumbering, in my navy Medford sweatshirt
& running shoes, I’m an awkward obstacle, standing in place
but really blocking the door. The outside is cloudy, about 40.
The sky’s its own raincoat. Cohen’s passed, & fearing students
disregard, was not taught. This year I’ll give the old man a chance,
& if I sense no shelter in the weather, sidestep, or stare into it
the way my father told me, absurdly, to tell the bully who’d fat lip
me, staining my sneakers with tobacco juice. Drop dead. I’ll say it
today because I didn’t when I should have cannoned it
from the diaphragm, the whole Northeast in my lungs.
Max Heinegg is a high school teacher in Medford, MA and the co-founder and brewmaster of Medford Brewing Company, (www.mbrewing.com). His poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, Columbia Poetry Review, among others. As a singer-songwriter, his music can be heard at www.maxheinegg.com