GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
The cook read Asterix in a brothel
when he was five. The white man beside
him once coasted off with the gas money,
tripped over cops on his porch. “I don’t look
like a thief,” he protests with Midwestern
mildness, while a baby gnaws his beefy
shoulder and his canines glitter. Another
scoundrel, drinking Scotch, describes knocking out
a girlfriend with an elbow to the temple
during an Asia show. Women spit rice
and beg for dirt. The cook’s tales of sailors
and their babysitting habits spark off
screams through the haze of wine and endorphins.
In the basement, someone’s son defends
a girl from bad guys with a rifle built from
tinker toys. The men grow wistful over
mango sorbet, deplore the war we should
not have launched. Asterix the Gaul lurches
to bed with sauce in his mustache. Women
clear dishes and jingle their keys while
some good guys search for shoes and hoist screaming
kids onto their backs and into the dark.
Paired knobs prickle down the heavy bureau like nipples.
I have walked through a year’s water, depression’s deeps and shallows.
In the dead woman’s filing cabinet I find a list of dirty Latin words: “ducunt...”
Barefoot, I grate orange peel at the counter, and when I shift my weight
I crush crumbs into the wooden planks.
The fan shrugs cold shoulders inside its metal cage and shadows intersect upon the walls.
Sex and death, sex and death. This is a deep part.
I breathe and the seas press back at my chest.
Two squirrels hump on a telephone pole, suspended by their claws,
shredding the sweet pine.
The leaves in the gutters exhale brown heat.
Feathers skitter past the carcass of a cardinal.
A contrail of sweat shines on the bicycle seat.
Wading is slow, although the water shifts like silk.
The girl with crooked braids
snacks on nasturtiums
from a plastic bag: brick-
red, gold, funneling nectar
from her green-lacquered
nails into her rosy throat.
Other arrogant, pretty
children run past her to the hex
jars of lavender honey
or curly piles of Russian kale.
All are safe enough
to trust the long-haired vendors
when they offer fistfuls
of peppery blossom, to chew
with spotless fluoride-
armored teeth, to bruise
and grind those petals
into nutrients. The girl
whose thick soft hair
slips like outrage
from its bindings cries
that piano practice is hard
that someone won’t be her friend
that the sun is growing hot
and I want to shout
at her and to feed her
more piano, more flowers
©2005 Lesley Wheeler
Lesley Wheeler teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Her poems appear in Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, The Chiron Review, Spoon River Review, and other journals.