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The Present

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 The day comes slowly in the railyard 
behind the ice factory.
It broods on one cinder after another until each glows like lead or the eye of a dog possessed of no inner fire, the brown and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle a moment and sighing lets it thud down on the loading dock.
In no time the day has crossed two sets of tracks, a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled down three stories of the bottling plant at the end of the alley.
It is now less than five hours until mid-day when nothing will be left in doubt, each scrap of news, each banished carton, each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies, will stare back at the one eye that sees it all and never blinks.
But for now there is water settling in a clean glass on the shelf beside the razor, the slap of bare feet on the floor above.
Soon the scent of rivers borne across roof after roof by winds without names, the aroma of opened beds better left closed, of mouths without teeth, of light rustling among the mice droppings at the back of a bin of potatoes.
* The old man who sleeps among the cases of empty bottles in a little nest of rags and newspapers at the back of the plant is not an old man.
He is twenty years younger than I am now putting this down in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad during a crisp morning in October.
When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve caught on a nail and spread his arms like a figure out of myth.
His head tore open on a spear of wood, and he swore in French.
No, he didn't want a doctor.
He wanted toilet paper and a drink, which were fetched.
He used the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did both with seven teenage boys looking on in wonder and fear.
At last the blood slowed and caked above his ear, and he never once touched the wound.
Instead, in a voice no one could hear, he spoke to himself, probably in French, and smoked sitting back against a pallet, his legs thrust out on the damp cement floor.
* In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed, Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit would stop a toothache, two a headache.
He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned -- the small eyes watering at the corners -- as Alcibiades might have grinned when at last he learned that love leads even the body beloved to a moment in the present when desire calms, the skin glows, the soul takes the light of day, even a working day in 1944.
For Baharozian at seventeen the present was a gift.
Seeing my ashen face, the cold sweats starting, he seated me in a corner of the boxcar and did both our jobs, stacking the full cases neatly row upon row and whistling the songs of Kate Smith.
In the bathroom that night I posed naked before the mirror, the new cross of hair staining my chest, plunging to my groin.
That was Wednesday, for every Wednesday ended in darkness.
* One of those teenage boys was my brother.
That night as we lay in bed, the lights out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first we thought he would die and how little he seemed to care as the blood rose to fill and overflow his ear.
Slowly the long day came over us and our breath quieted and eased at last, and we slept.
When I close my eyes now his bare legs glow before me again, pure and lovely in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks dimpled and firm.
I see again the rope of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying, the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt to clean himself.
He gazes at no one or nothing, but seems instead to look off into a darkness I hadn't seen, a pool of shadow that forms before his eyes, in my memory now as solid as onyx.
* I began this poem in the present because nothing is past.
The ice factory, the bottling plant, the cindered yard all gave way to a low brick building a block wide and windowless where they designed gun mounts for personnel carriers that never made it to Korea.
My brother rises early, and on clear days he walks to the corner to have toast and coffee.
Seventeen winters have melted into an earth of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman without a blessing or a stone to bear it.
A little spar of him the size of a finger, pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked, washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo before the rest slipped down the falls out into the St.
Lawrence.
He could be at sea, he could be part of an ocean, by now he could even be home.
This morning I rose later than usual in a great house full of sunlight, but I believe it came down step by step on each wet sheet of wooden siding before it crawled from the ceiling and touched my pillow to waken me.
When I heave myself out of this chair with a great groan of age and stand shakily, the three mice still in the wall.
From across the lots the wind brings voices I can't make out, scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting rain, of onions and potatoes frying.



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