BRONX PASTORAL—April 30, 2020

By Carl James Grindley

 

The peak, I figure, was on Good Friday,

Halfway through my own sickness,

When the medical center ran out of body bags

And had to use bed linens to wrap the dead,

They even ordered another cold truck to put them in.

All of that, I thought, was a stone that could not

Or perhaps should not

Be rolled away.

 

Today, at about 3 am, a homeless man was walking

Down the middle of Walton Avenue,

And for whatever reason, he broke

The dark calm to tell me about Jesus,

Tell me that no matter how much Jesus loved me,

Jesus was also angry, angry about

Something incoherently mumbled and indistinct,

Something shouted and frightening and perhaps

Ineffable, so I opened my window a little

Wider, just to hear about whatever it was that had upset

Jesus so much, and I could hear my neighbors,

From silent shadows and dreams, sliding

Their windows wide too.

 

Hours later, there was a man outside

My building and he was coughing so much

He vomited twice. He has been doing this for weeks,

Always at the same time every day—

He is probably just an alcoholic,

So next time he does it,

If you see me turning to look,

It is not at him at all,

I just want to see the new spring rain

Which has begun to fall.

 

Death is receding like a neap tide—

There are small and quite absolute silences between the sirens,

And the sound of the wind passing through the leaves,

And the sound of the birds and the sound of the rain itself,

Glisters just the way it used to

Before anyone dead lived here.

 

Masks and gloves discolor and decay

Alongside the ancient syringes and the desiccated cat shit

That is forever piled up around the trunks

Of the newly budding trees. Delivery men

In short sleeves fight one another in the blind

Alleyway by the bodega. The super,

His mask pulled down around his chin, smokes

A cigarette and drinks a cup of coffee. Surely

Spring has come. Surely this is a sign

Of something, if not an approaching end,

Then a simple weariness, an anesthesia

Concocted out of too many weeks of caring,

And too many identical meals.

 

The London planetrees on Walton Avenue are slowly

Unfurling as if impatient for a better audience to arrive–

Yesterday, my neighbor across the street held his peace until

The sun drew all the way down, then he snuck out

And dumped cat shit and cat litter around the base

Of each tree like he was trying to do all of us a favor,

Repay a debt none of us knew had been incurred.

 

Who knows how many people watched him,

Perhaps all of us.

He has been doing this for at least fifteen years now,

An old man with an old cat,

And a seemingly inexhaustible supply

Of shit and bad manners.

 

The rain is falling past the cracked

Sodium street lights, falling past the stop lights, falling

On the defunct Pentecostal church on the corner, running

Down the bodega’s gray shutters, and the road is so beautiful

That the world no longer matters:

All of this is tiresome prologue

For a book that is 99% index.

 

Of course, the spring will continue

To arrive, continue to build until it has fashioned

The summer and then the fall

Out of its own green image,

But the spring and the summer and the fall and even next winter

And the winter after that are not the heart of the thing.

The heart of the thing is an old man

Who sneaks out at night

And dumps cat shit absolutely everywhere.

 

On the Concourse, gas is two bucks a gallon,

And one in seven small business owners on my block

Have good enough spelling to explain

Why they boarded up, and assholes

Have tagged the hoardings

As if they wanted to claim all of it

As their own. They can have it.

 

There is a tiny median between Cardinal Hayes

And the place where you can buy live chickens

And live pheasants to kill at home: red tulips

And purple tulips and white daffodils grow

In perfect order, a whole host of them, bent

In the rain, but perfect all the same. In 15 years

I have never seen them before. Every other year,

I suppose, someone rips them up

The moment they bloom.

 

This city should be difficult jazz in perverse time signatures.

Inedible pizza,

Fake Tibetan monks and cheese

I can neither pronounce nor afford.

This city should be movies I make myself see,

And gazes I decline to meet

As I walk down the street.

The streets are still full of stinking garbage

But it’s just not the same.

 

This city should be perfect

Or it should go on without us.

Without any of us.

 

If I were designing a soundtrack for the end of it all,

I’m not so sure I would have gone with

Merengues and bachatas and salsas

All seemingly played on autorepeat

Through the world’s worst car stereo

On a perfectly fine rainy morning.

 

My neighbor who drives an uber is washing his car in the street.

Who is he picking up? A doctor? A nurse?

Where are they going?–and now, he is talking

To that neighbor of mine who cannot or will not stop

Coughing and vomiting. And they get up close,

As close as they can, and the other guy does not stop

Coughing, and they are right in each other’s faces,

And there is a cough between each gasped

And imperfectly formed word,

Like a metronome click track keeping perfect time

For God Almighty as he spins up the next disc, and surprise

Surprise surprise it is more salsa to mark the end

Of the end of it all.

 

They are wearing their masks like scarves by the way.

 

Life is a party. A highway. A ship in a rain squall,

With fog ahead and with fog behind, and a moment

To focus before it all goes white.

 

The down-low bar on the corner papered

Over its door with The Post and lowered

The blinds, but it stayed open the whole

Time anyway. Alcoholics go there too,

So it is essential

In its own South Bronx way.

 

Last night, after the old man dumped the cat shit,

And before the preacher arrived,

It was still so quiet-colored at evening’s end

That I could hear the feral cats fucking on a stoop across

The street. Fucking

With the sort of intensity

Not even teenagers have anymore,

Like they fully expected the whole world to

Stop to hear them fuck;

Someone, one of my neighbors,

Shouted something at the cats,

And then shouted a few more things just in general,

But the cats did not stop,

And there was no reason why they should–

Every vestige of it was

Breathless and dumb.

 

But all of it is receding, like a stone rolled

Away from a tomb’s open mouth—

It isn’t empty inside, indeed, the bodies are stacked high,

And room is needed for still more,

But as the stone comes to halt,

For an instant, for the smallest part

Of an inevitable spring, you can hear

The birds and the rain.

 

One day, I am going to come up with a way

To bottle everything that happened, and sell it

On the internet so everyone can have a turn:

I was shivering so hard two Thursdays ago

That I cracked a tooth,

And maybe everyone would like the taste

Of blood in their mouths once in a while.

Imagine that: a little bottle, a warning

Label, take for fever and chills.

 

I wanted to phone my Dad up

And tell him about all of this,

But he died two years ago this

Coming December,

So it is just me.

 

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