The Old Poet Sees the White Man

                       for Vic Charlo

Two stools down, two white guys

rebuild – sheet rock and tape – the house

they’d worked on all day, tossing

back pints of Miller beer. Beyond them

an elderly couple sit chewing

on burgers, still collared up warm

in their polyester coats – two cigarettes

burning in the ash tray between them.

Not a regular, but not a stranger,

the old poet orders a burger and glass

of Guinness, props his cane between his knees,

cracks open a peanut and nibbles

on the fruit, lets the shells fall

among the husks piling on the floor.

 

The door opens and an Indian woman enters.

All heads turn, pause, and return.

She walks past them, the length of the bar,

her gait smooth and sure as a cat’s,

disappears in the direction of the rest rooms

or the alley exit. One bartender washing

glasses nods knowingly at the other guy

flipping burgers. On TV, Dallas, America’s

Team, battles the Redskins for bragging

rights – top dog of the NFL cellar.

 

The old poet recalls a sweat he took years ago

up Spring Creek, catches himself humming

a song – Charlo’s Walking Bear.

The polyester smoker points out to his woman

an all-Irish Butte baseball team in the gallery

on the back wall, laughs, coughs and rasps,

“Down in Finn Town we hammered those Micks.”

The dishwashing bartender grins, pours

the Finn couple free beers on the house.

One of the carpenters kills his pint, raps

the empty hard on the counter, and stands up

to stretch his legs, “No shit,” he says,

“every fuckin’ board – twisted as a cork screw!”

The bartender laughs, grabs a fresh glass,

tilts it under the tap, and draws another brew.

 

The Indian woman comes back, appears

headed out the door, but pulls up

next to the poet – who gives her a smile

she doesn’t return. She digs in her pockets,

drops coins on the bar, and unwads two

crumpled bills. The bartender keeps rinsing glasses.

His ears, then his eyes acknowledge the money.

 

He wipes his hands, asks flatly, “Whatta ya need?”

The old poet sees smoke, bleached bones,

black wings cross her face, framed

in the back bar mirror. “Ya got cigarettes?”

she asks quietly, “Marlboro menthols?”

He pulls a box of regular filters from the case.

“Menthols,” she says. Slowly, he grabs another

brand, shows her, says, “Four and a quarter.”

Her hands close on the mound of cash.

“Four and a fucking quarter?” she asks.

Holding the pack up, halfway over the bar,

he warns, “Hey! Watch your mouth.”

Grabbing her change and mumbling, “Goddamn

robbers,” she turns and lunges out the door.

 

The bartender returns the pack of smokes

to the case, blank faced – his one eye twitches.

Nobody’s talking. Then the Cowboys score.

Happy Hour begins, and the bartender

pours. The poet’s burger is up. The old couple

moves over to the keno machines. America’s

Team pulls out an overtime squeaker.

As the carpenters get back to nailing it down,

the old poet chews slowly, nurses his beer,

and glances at the white man

eating crow in the mirror.

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