Bio Note: I live in Asheville, North Carolina. Moved here in 2015 after a long teaching career in Georgia. I’ve been teaching part-time in UNCA’s Great Smokies Writing Program, but mostly I tend my garden and my writing. My most recent book is Some Wonder, published in 2015. Switchback: New and Selected Poems is in the que at Salmon Poetry Press—hoping for a 2022 release.
Horse Not Zebra
When med students are learning how to diagnose symptoms, they’re told think horse, not zebra—the common, not the exotic. Which is good advice even if you’re not a doctor. Like when your phone rings at 3:00 in the morning-- think wrong number, not who died? Or if your love is over an hour late for dinner and hasn’t called to explain, think gridlock, not head-on; dead zone, not dead. When the guy in the truck doesn’t slow down much less stop when you step into the crosswalk, think distracted, not son-of-a-bitch. Recall the time your mind was still at work, how shocked you were to see in your rear-view a woman in the crosswalk flipping you off with both hands. And if you’re steaming in a mile long back-up because protesters have blocked the bridge again, don’t think where are the damn cops when you need them, think how, when popping sounds wake you at night, you think firecracker, not gun.
Even the bluebird fades to gray as summer burns out. The hawk’s fearless screech sounds more like grief exhausting itself. I spend the afternoon deadheading daylilies until my fingers numb, my back and knees petrify. I remind myself that new blossoms will blaze the path tomorrow, and the stressed sugar maples I planted in spring are tipped with new growth. I lift a handful of mulch to my nose, breathe the trees inside. And here comes the old couple, climbing the steep street. He’s frail and stooped but setting a steady pace, one arm reaching back, hand open as if waiting for a baton to be placed in his palm by the woman following him. She’s taller and stronger looking, her beacon-red hair piled so high I think at first it’s a hat. Arm outstretched, she slips her hand smoothly into his and seems to glide to his side. As they pass me they wave as if they are the liberators of Barnard Avenue. On the man’s red sweatshirt is a silkscreened face that looks familiar, but I can’t place it until I see the single word above the flowing black hair and dashing beret: Che. No last name needed. I think the sweatshirt must be as old as the man himself, throwback on top of throwback, relics of revolutionary fire. But then I realize it’s new, unfaded, still a little stiff. And the look on his face isn’t wistfulness or irony, it’s devotion to a future he won’t see any more than I will see the struggling maples grow tall enough to shade the house in summer. How can I not raise my mulch encrusted fist in salute, my flagging will surging like a relay runner reaching out to hand off the baton.
©2021 Eric Nelson
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