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Poems

Mercy

Through slow snow drifting down,

I visit Roy after not visiting

since before Christmas, over a month ago.

I knock on the metal door at the end of the dim motel hall.

I don't know whether he is still here, but he is.

His wakened roar comes through the door. "Who is it?!"

"It's Howard." A pause. Then, "OK. Wait a minute."

More than a minute goes by. Then the door swings back.

"Come on in." No attempt at good cheer.

The heavy curtains are drawn

against the winter light. It's pretty dark, so I ask

if I should turn on the light. "No," he says.

No explanation needed or given.

We sit together in the semi-dark.

I pull over the chair with wooden arms.

He sits on the edge of the bed, as he always does,

since he's been living here, about four months now.

He looks bad, swollen, in his pajama bottoms--

all he seems to wear anymore. No reason

to get dressed when you're going to spend the whole day

sleeping, drinking, and smoking alone in a motel room.

Still, he seems glad to see me, or at least not un-glad.

"How are you doing?"--that old stupid question.

His answer is better than the question deserves:

"I'm all right. I wish I could breathe though."

He's got the lungs of a 40-year heavy smoker,

and congestive heart disease.

It turns out he's spent a week in the hospital

since I was here last. Time flies.

Time got away from me. It was the holidays.

Apparently it was via the police that he got to the hospital--

something involving him calling out to a woman

who was walking past the motel

who he thought he knew--

it's the kind of thing that happens to Roy.

In any case, he ended up in the hospital,

and they kept him there for a week.

His worldly possessions are here with him--

besides a few clothes hung and piled here and there,

they fit into two shopping bags, sitting on the floor beside the wall.

Between the bags and the bed, a half empty bottle of vodka.

I offer to take him to the supermarket,

or go pick up something for him.

Neither gratefully nor not gratefully, he declines.

"No--I don't need anything. I'm all right."

Apropos of nothing, he says,

as our conversation pauses in the dark,

"There's a woman. She comes around here."

Being the one who specializes

in stupid comments in our conversations, I say,

"A woman? What do you mean?"

"Come on now. You're an intelligent person.

What do you think I mean?"

"A prostitute?" It wasn't stupidity, exactly,

that led me to ask. It was disbelief

at the thought of him, broken down and coughing

and unable to breath in his smoke-stenched room,

as a customer. Naive, if I thought

anyone is not eligible for her services

who has the money, which he apparently still does--

though it must be going fast at $50 a day.

"How did she find you?" I ask. "Well, she comes around."

I am torn by pity for the prostitute in her profession,

and a slight turn-on at the thought of having her

as a visitor, and also a sort of happiness

for Roy. He does seem pleased.

"She'll gratify all your desires," he says.

"Well, good for her...or good for you..."

Once again, I am having trouble knowing

the right thing to say. Then I come up with,

"She's an angel of mercy." And he says, "Yes,"

and then, "Thank you."

And then he says,

"You can put that in one of your little stories."

I'm taken aback. He knows I write poems--

not that he would consider them poems.

With "little stories," he is again

quite right. But as far as I know

he doesn't know that I've written a few about him--

and maybe he doesn't, or maybe he does,

but to hear him say that is startling,

and the truth is that I'd already started

to write down in my head the news about the prostitute.

So I say, "Really? Would that be all right with you?"

"Well, yeah--just change the name, you know."

Which I have done.


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