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Then

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 A solitary apartment house, the last one 
before the boulevard ends and a dusty road 
winds its slow way out of town. On the third floor 
through the dusty windows Karen beholds 
the elegant couples walking arm in arm 
in the public park. It is Saturday afternoon, 
and she is waiting for a particular young man 
whose name I cannot now recall, if name 
he ever had. She runs the thumb of her left hand 
across her finger tips and feels the little tags 
of flesh the needle made that morning at work 
and wonders if he will feel them. She loves her work, 
the unspooling of the wide burgundy ribbons 
that tumble across her lap, the delicate laces, 
the heavy felts for winter, buried now that spring 
is rising in the trees. She recalls a black hat 
hidden in a deep drawer in the back of the shop. 
She made it in February when the snows piled 
as high as her waist, and the river stopped at noon, 
and she thought she would die. She had tried it on, 
a small, close-fitting cap, almost nothing, 
pinned down at front and back. Her hair tumbled 
out at the sides in dark rags. When she turned 
it around, the black felt cupped her forehead 
perfectly, the teal feathers trailing out behind, 
twin cool jets of flame. Suddenly he is here. 
As she goes to the door, the dark hat falls back 
into the closed drawer of memory to wait 
until the trees are bare and the days shut down 
abruptly at five. They touch, cheek to cheek, 
and only there, both bodies stiffly arched apart. 
As she draws her white gloves on, she can smell 
the heat rising from his heavy laundered shirt, 
she can almost feel the weight of the iron 
hissing across the collar. It's cool out, he says, 
cooler than she thinks. There are tiny dots 
of perspiration below his hairline. What a day 
for strolling in the park! Refusing the chair 
by the window, he seems to have no time, 
as though this day were passing forever, 
although it is barely after two of a late May 
afternoon a whole year before the modern era. 
Of course she'll take a jacket, she tells him, 
of course she was planning to, and she opens her hands, 
the fingers spread wide to indicate the enormity 
of his folly, for she has on only a blouse, 
protection against nothing. In the bedroom 
she considers a hat, something dull and proper 
as a rebuke, but shaking out her glowing hair 
she decides against it. The jacket is there, 
the arms spread out on the bed, the arms 
of a dressed doll or a soldier at attention 
or a boy modelling his first suit, my own arms 
when at six I stood beside my sister waiting 
to be photographed. She removes her gloves 
to feel her balled left hand pass through the silk 
of the lining, and then her right, fingers open. 
As she buttons herself in, she watches 
a slow wind moving through the planted fields 
behind the building. She stops and stares. 
What was that dark shape she saw a moment 
trembling between the sheaves? The sky lowers, 
the small fat cypresses by the fields' edge 
part, and something is going. Is that the way 
she too must take? The world blurs before her eyes 
or her sight is failing. I cannot take her hand, 
then or now, and lead her to a resting place 
where our love matters. She stands frozen 
before the twenty-third summer of her life, 
someone I know, someone I will always know.



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