I tried for years to write of trains,
to catch the rhythm of their churning wheels
in the uneven flow of words,
to put one word past another
like endless tracks stealing across
three vast and stubborn continents,
to remember your hand in mine
across the eternal moonscape
distance of the western states, and watch
your true face appear by morning light,
to yearn to be with you, apart
from the wayward Midwestern looks,
in some private rolling space
where longing is no destination.
I tried for years to find the words
to comfort the sobbing German girl
whose stolen bag is politely returned
while the polite train waits, and the
culprit is shot on the bloodstained tracks
in the remoter wastes of Xinjiang.
I tried for years to stop the wailing
of beggars as we slow to take on fuel,
then speed up again through a nightmare
haze of midnight villages,
to bring to life the dying child
thrust half-through an open window
by her screaming mother stumbling along
the uneven tracks of Varanasi.
For many years now, a good long while,
I have ridden the lines of commuter rail,
where I read the front page twice a day
and the headlines of Sports and Metro.
But the trains roll by, all night long
to the infinite freight yards of Chicago,
and shake my house to the basement walls
as I toss and turn in my sleep.
The Price of Cabbage
When I first lived in Taiwan, many years ago,
I wrote Chinese characters by candlelight
deep into the night, following the rules
of top before bottom, left before right,
in column after column of a child’s notebook,
each stroke coaxing to life a syllable of perfect pitch
floating, seemingly, above the fray
of mortal communication.
Later, as I tried to read myself to sleep,
my eyes fought a battle they could not win
with my native English, arrayed in
hideous formation, words and letters
marching in lockstep across the page
like columns of soldiers, or like ants
intent on deflowering the trees
of their plum blossoms
and devouring the very pages from the book.
Sometimes I would write in the morning
accompanied by tea and the
relentless chattering of the neighborhood wives
drifting in from the street.
At first I strained to grasp a word or two, and then
one day understood that the price of cabbage had risen.
And the day after that it had risen again.
Like anywhere, it took some time
to absorb the rules of ritual exchange,
then one brave soul began to greet me,
looking me directly in the eye
while asking if I had eaten, and
coming over to share pleasantries
under the guise of learning English.
She called me out of the blue
exactly three years ago this month,
at first sounding nervous
and excited, as if she had something
of great import to tell me,
and then crying softly before
she hung up, because I seemed
to have suffered brain damage
in the long years of my absence.
The two of us had once shared a
bounty, more than our tongues and lips
could hold, but after all those years
I was choking on mouthfuls of the stuff
that inhabits the gulf between feeling,
memory, and words;
I could barely remember how to ask for the price of cabbage.
And now I can’t even begin to make out
a letter I once wrote, and had hoped to send.
I wonder where all the words have gone,
whether they have been threatened
into exile by jealous husbands,
or killed by the rabble of barbarian English,
which no longer causes me pain.
Perhaps they are just off in a corner
hiding from the foreign devils in my mind.
As for the memories, to save face
they practice an old Chinese custom.
Before leaving home, they kiss something
that may turn out in the end to be nothing
more than a sliver of raw bacon
hanging from a hook by the door,
to sustain the illusion
with greasy smiles,
to both neighbor and kin
in these times of famine,
that these lips have supped on meat.
My landlady has the gift of second sight and likes to talk politics.
She tells me that Reagan saved Central America
from communism, then she raves about the dead Vietnamese
while extolling Somoza’s reforms. She cooks herself
six meals a day and offers me moldy grapes.
When her pots and pans have gathered flies for six days
she curses the sick maid and reminds me to wash my plate.
Jesus made her invisible on a bus ride through El Salvador
where she had gone to tidy her late brother’s affairs.
He died of a broken appendix;
hoarding toilet paper did him no good.
I have rationed my rice, and when I’m hungry it is gone.
She keeps fish heads in the refrigerator for the cat.
My eggs smell like fish heads, my cheese smells like fish heads,
my rice smells like fish heads and is gone.
She has invited me to a gathering of sober Americans abroad
on my day off.
She was a starving actress in the sixties,
and is now a painter of some reputation.
She holds her new grandson close to her breast
while his father raises his voice.
She was beautiful then, and I believe her.
Now she holds her grandson close to her breast like a ham.
She had a Hollywood contract and filmed half a picture.
She was raven-haired and played the part of Rebecca.
The Actor’s Studio was so taken with her suicide
she was auctioned off like a side of beef.
In a fit of pride she returned to Costa Rica
and became a landlady.
She is a good landlady, although she sometimes forgets
to properly store her perishables.
She has only burned the house down once.
Some producer was coming down to fetch her on his yacht.
He was taken with her innocence, but liked to call her “grandma,”
since she was all of twenty-two.
He set sail from Miami with a crew of six,
ranging in age from thirteen to fourteen,
and inevitably died of a heart attack.
The panic-stricken girls left his body to rot on deck,
afraid they’d be accused of murder
if they nudged his stiff corpse over the side
with their still-growing feet.
For days they subsisted on brandy and cigars,
drifting in an aimless frenzy along the Gulf Stream,
a feast of gulls pounding the cabin door…
You never told me how it ended, though
it is safe to assume they were rescued, I suppose.
Forgive me now for this intrusion.
I have just now come upon this after all these years;
I believe I wrote it the first time my rent was late
when I hardly knew you at all,
before I learned Spanish on the tape recorder and
your voice had become to me
the breathless epiphanies of Lorca and Neruda.
I finish it now ten years down the line,
many years since I have lost the tapes
and a long time since I was your friend.
About the author
Tim Hawkins has lived and traveled widely throughout North America, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, where he has worked as a journalist, technical writer,…Read the full bio
Issue 02 · December 2008
Table of contents
- From the editors
- Postcard Prose
- Travel Notes