Ice has bloated the Allegheny,
trapped the barges, starred
the birch buds banking the turnpike
and spread into the wailing,
rickety pipes of the basement.
My sheets are stiff and cold,
moonlight gnaws at the torn shade
when I go to my sister’s room
to wake her, to confess I’m
afraid of the dark and to ask
if it’s true what I heard over
a hot dog at the Woolworth’s counter
that a band of rats squeezed
 through the floorboards of a tenement
in New York and chewed off
a child’s foot, my age, as he slept.
But instead I ask where do all
the dead fathers go after they
leave us. She tells me they walk
in single file up to the lighthouse
at the crown of the knoll overlooking
the river where they shrink
into a thumbnail of light called soul.
Sometimes they play cards
with an invisible deck. They laugh
and slap each other’s phantom backs
with hands reduced to habits.
They inhale our dust and pool their breath
in hopes of inventing a new shelf
of wind. Sometimes they wrap
what their bodies used to look like
in gauze and tiptoe through our rooms
so we won’t forget them. But mainly
they put their hoarse, sonorous voices
together and howl. When I ask
if the living have soul she points
outside to a woman scavenging milk crates
and dragging a carpet down the alley
and tells me having soul is part
sadness, part tingle. I reveal I felt
both when I spied our neighbor, the widow
Mrs. Pierce, doing it in the kitchen
with the pharmacist. That, she says,
is a different kind of light.
For now we are dark and oarless
boats, so tiny when the lighthouse
turns its beacon on it’s likely
to miss us the first few circles
and when the light finally hits it’ll
pause as if stunned to spot us
still afloat, giving us more time
to take in these shoreless hours
and to glare back at its blinding face.

 

From Oarless Boats, Vacant Lots. Copyright © Jon Veinberg