Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
The Kiss

    {from Nightwork} 



He was safe from her till 2 PM, when they called him off his break to wheel her over to GYN.  She would be going home tomorrow, his day off, and he knew now he would have to invent a kind of goodbye, the best he could manage under the circumstances.  And so he took her chart and charge slip off the counter and handed them to her, and she slid them down into the chair beside her right thigh with the brown polyester slacks, and he checked her restraint and thumbed the down on the elevator, all the time averted from her eyes, those huge sad eyes in the large framed glasses, from her boyish hair, Gracie Mock, what was left of her.

     It was hard enough descending one flight to the tunnel.  There was just too much time for her to speak.  He knew there was pain in her, being that close, and he didn’t want any part of it, not now.  But he got through that safely, and then they were at the bottom of the ramp, and there was the long ribbon of concrete under insulated pipes, the dingy yellow walls, and his pushing her ahead and no one in sight and suddenly, just thirty feet on, her hand reaching back to take his on the grip of her chair, and she was asking him to stop just a minute in a voice that mirrored his own desperation.

     “Promise me it’s not over,” she said.  “You’ll give me your number.  You’ll do that.  You’ll let me call you.  When my mother has me set up you’ll visit.”

     “I can’t visit you.  You know I would.”

     “Don’t say that.  I don’t want your good intentions.  I just want to see you again.  That’s not much.  It’s nothing for you.  It’s a lot for me.  It’s everything for me, Tommy.  There just ain’t anything else.”

     They were under a lot of steam overhead and stalled now with her hand curiously damp and cold over his wrist, massaging him with a sensation that was strangely erotic, a sexuality so terrible it seemed to breathe death up his arm, the very decay of femininity, and he was sucking in death, just over her, watching her try to find his eyes.  It was the worst thing he had ever done, making her love him.  It was so terrible he couldn’t withdraw his hand without taking her death with it.  And yet she was lovely.  The worst part about it was her awful beauty, the plain face, the useless legs, the tremors, Christ face hooked back at him, searching for a trace of hope and getting none.

     “I’d like to love you, but I can’t,” he said, so softly he hoped she couldn’t hear him.

     “I’d like to love you,” he said.  His voice broke.

     She turned away, and he pushed off again, the long incline toward Building 6.  He knew she was crying, and the hardest part was that he was suddenly starting to hate her.  No, she wouldn’t make him cry.  She would make him hate the day he made her love him, hate her for being just that shallow.  When you tricked these ladies into loving you, you always paid for it with guilt, and you paid in full measure because you knew you were never worth it, and you hated because they were such poor specimens for taking you in, especially when it was stacked against them like Gracie here, this creature with the tube in her groin down to the sack above the floor.

     But at last they were nearing the elevator, and there was a crowd of porters drifting past, and she had no chance for further intimacy, especially now, not even ascending, for there was an EKG technician on with her cart, and then they were headed down the tile toward the clinics, and he had her safely parked and was at the desk with her chair and was over on one of the vinyl chairs with a fat palsied lady between them and Gracie drying her tears and not even daring to look his direction.

     On the way back she told him that she had never done that before, come on to a man.  That I hope you think better of me and I’m not a tramp, you know, and it’s just that I love you, that’s all, and please don’t think badly of me, and somehow all he could notice was her grammar, as if the occasional ain’t had its idiosyncratic charm, its incontinence, its spasms, up the shaft to the desk to leave off her chart and park her in the dining room in front of a soap opera with the plastic bag dangling from the bottom of her chair, a loop of yellow fluid angling up to enter a slit in the trousers.

     “Just stay a minute.  Just a minute, Tommy.”

     “It’s time for report.”

     “I want to see you again.  That’s not much.”

     “Gracie, I’ll call you.  You leave your number with Williams, and I’ll call you.”

     “You say you will.”

     “I’ll call you.  I’ll call you once a week.”

     “And you’ll come.”

     “I’ll call you and we’ll talk it out.”

     “You’ll come.”

     “All right.  I’ll even do that.  I’ll do that.  Just leave your number.”

     “I’ll give it to you.  You’ll write it down.”

     “You give it to Williams.”

     “I love you, Tommy.”

     “I’ll call you.”

     “All right.”

     He gave her his hand to kiss, and she tried to kiss it, but he pulled it away from her disease, and then he saw the ruin in her face, and he bent down and kissed her on the lips.  The worst part about it was that she was a woman.  It wasn’t so much that it disgusted him but he knew she desired him.  It wasn’t so much that she desired him but that she ached like the very hole in Eve just to have him fill her up, even with her MS, and he wasn’t about to fill anyone up, with the exception of Barry, who was probably waiting out there right now in his yellow Datsun, no one beyond his wife ever holding him up that long, piece that he was.  Hating looking down at what he had just kissed.  Yet there was an awful fascination in the sounds of it, what was coming deep within, just a blur of her there and turning away from it to the zombies crowding the room and a few amputees still with it and the lady that only said Good Morning and the man that said Yeah for either yes or no, the extent of his vocabulary, and a puddle of urine under Ma Kenney, the lot of them creeping Jesus down toward agony and fear and Gracie going home to a mother who hated her.

     Report was well over.  He signed out on the pink sheet.  Just a minute to go, but even now his District Leader would watch the door.  Just a minute.

     “Night, Tommy.  Night.  You take care, hear?”

     Strangest thing.  They seemed to love him.  Even Barry.  Nothing he hated more than how his whole world seemed to eat from the same dish.

     On the television someone was describing for Gracie Mock the sort of man she should love.  Somehow he seemed like Tommy.  There was still a chance.  Oh yes, even her first grade teacher knew she didn’t give up that quickly.  One thing about television.  It was always like life. There was never anything in the whole world that didn't end right if you prayed for it.  You prayed hard, and then it wasn’t sad anymore.






Smile in the resignation,

To tap an ash and view

The inalterable closing scene,

Sweet Joy observes


With close-cropped hair

The tediously crippled

Scuttle toward their lunch,

Infected with their hope.


There is little to record

And little more amiss.

Such moments sleep

Toward small awakenings,


Perhaps a notion

Of past tense, image somehow

Unreal, perhaps a taste

Of lapse.  Could someone


Teach Joy how to feel?

Again the smile,

Serrated pain, a mild

Abrasion on the lips, a wince,


An effort, habit,

Fitting the gesture on for size,

Adjusting for absence,

Shifting her thighs,


A rudimentary ache

She can control

Far better than her urine.

Such dignity seems foreign,


Pale, exotic,

A tense of the necrotic.

It countenances increments

Of hurt as tissues fail


And fail to feed.

She cannot vouch

For what she’s lost or heed

The private cost, the hunger.


Such speculation is a stranger.

There is no greater

Danger.  And thus she sits

And frames a smile


That shudders like the flick

On cosmic fortune,

So small to weep

Yet large enough to wear


Amusement.  I tender

Her bemusement, more or less.

What depths it tries

Are simply danger’s guess.


To speak of empathy

Is profanation.

Perhaps I speak of grace.

The worm that eats is something other.


And then she tried to kiss

Me just this morning.

It was like that—

No warning,


Carnal for an instant,

Perhaps repentant.

I cannot love my fear.  Perhaps

I fear the depth she meant it.