Gerry and Ray
I visit Steve and Joanne, they’re frazzled from renovating their house
for two solid years: holes in the floor, wood piles,
mild chaos. We sit on the couch nibbling cheese
below a ragged nest of wires. They’re excited
by what the house will be. They are sweet.
Steve, mouth full of brie, blurts out, “Johnny,
have we got a juicy story for you!”
They found something—Steve winks saucily—
inside the bedroom wall.
The previous tenant, Joanne explains, was an old lady, Gerry,
who died in the house. She lived there sixty years.
She outlived her husband Ray
by thirty years. At the end, so the story goes,
Gerry, almost blind, died alone in bed.
One day Steve, hammering gyprock, found a packet,
taped shut: “TO RAY, MERRY XMAS.”
In the packet: black and white photos of a naked lady
in a beehive hairdo, camping. Not Gerry.
Steve stares at me, waiting for the penny to drop.
Joanne waggles her eyebrows.
“Not Gerry?” I say.
The lady in the pics, Steve explains,
smoked, smiled, danced,
naked. Naked in a canoe, naked in the sun. In a tent …
“Naked,” I say. They nod, solemnly. The husband, Ray,
must have sealed the photos in the walls.
Drywalled them in, painted over it.
His secret, untouched for sixty years.
Did Gerry, feeling her way to the bed—
small dark figure moving within a larger darkness
—suspect that the house contained
a certain intelligence? Before Gerry died,
she stopped going out. And no wonder:
everything you need is right here.
Out the window a family strolls by in silence
like supernumeraries in a dream. Beyond them,
an oil refinery groans like a bull.
Joanne says, “I blame Ray for Gerry’s loneliness.”
Joanne found, she explains, Ray’s walking sticks
in the garage. Ray learned to carve as a POW,
in Poland. He couldn’t talk to Gerry
about his troubling memories. She didn’t get it.
So he visited Madeleine, across the street.
(“Madeleine was not the naked woman,” says Steve,
eyebrow arched.) At Madeleine’s, Ray helped around the house.
Fixed her guitar. They talked.
One evening Ray didn’t return for supper.
Gerry put out the call. Ray’s body
hunched over his steering wheel, bottom of the street.
“I guess,” I say, “every house has secrets.”
“Not this one!” says Steve, gesturing to the exposed walls:
beams and nails and putty and muck plainly visible.
Gerry felt her way to the bed, alone,
for thirty years. Her handprints
trailed the walls: arrant grey with a dim yellow horizon
where her hands had been.
I was born one human in five parts: mother, father, grandmother, lover, and me. Like continents—over an eternity—we drift, converge, drift again.
We swarm the rooms like a hive. Mother dances, knocks over plants with her elbows. Father stirs risotto, bows low as we pass. Grandma reads a pulp novel—or it is hollow, gin inside? Lover recites Celan to the lilac in the yard. I am the quiet one. At my best I am transparent with joy.
Sometimes we change places. Father dances, grandma bows, lover reads Celan. Mother recites a pulp novel to the lilac. I stir risotto. I drink gin.
Then, inevitably, we move apart, to cities, to countries. No reunions. Shop signs change, change again. I watch from my window. I achieve little. I seem to know what the others are doing, at any moment. I sense, like a whiff of lilac, one is near.
Once on a goat trail in Greece. Once in my apartment when I am old. One of my family is on the roof, the edge. The last. The body falls past, I raise my gin glass. Beyond happy. I see right through my hand, to the bright window.
My soiled clothes drift to the floor in a pile.
School Bully Song
Dad said I was not allowed
at Darren’s house
yet there I was
with Darren in his backyard
knee-deep in sheet metal
and car batteries.
“What a dump,” I observed,
laughing. An idea skimmed
just under the water
of Darren’s face.
He kicked a car
hiked up on cinder blocks.
I kicked, too. It swayed,
heavily, and righted itself.
In Darren’s kitchen
a woman in a bathrobe
like moulting feathers
smoked a cigarette.
We stepped past her.
“Is that,” I snickered,
Darren held his nose,
stuck out his tongue.
He adjusted the bunny ears
on the TV (Sgt Schultz:
“I See Nooothing!”).
We sat on the red shag rug.
“We have,” I said,
“a better TV at my place.”
He kept watching,
face pink and sweaty.
We watched TV a long time
Finally I said,
“Your house sucks ass, you know?”
Darren didn’t look at me.
He was picking mac and cheese
out of a bowl
with his fingers.
John Wall Barger's poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, Smog Mother, was co-winner of the Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game (Palimpsest Press, 2019), is now in its second print run. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches a poetry workshop at The University of the Arts.