Off from a double at McDonald’s,
no autumnal pinata, no dying leaves
crumbling to bits of colored paper
on the sidewalks only yesterday,
just each breath bursting to explosive fog
in a dead-end alley near Fifth,
where on my knees with my fingers
laced behind my head and a square
barrel 9MM prodding my left temple,
I thought of me in the afterlife.
Only moments before Chris Wilder and I
jogged down Girard to warmth
and the promise of two girls who winked
past an army of food reps, across the ice-bin
and pitched lanes of burgers and square
chips of fish, at us reigning over grills and vats,
lost in a barrage of beepers and timers.
Moments before, we stood in a check
cashing line for our first pay, evidence
of hours spent flipping baskets under
a heat-lamp, during break, with
a motley bunch of mothers on relief,
college students on bad credit, hard-hatted,
day-workers coated in white dust,
the minimum-waged poor from the many
fast-food joints lining Broad,
all of us anxious to enact the power
of our riches – me in the afterlife.
What did it matter that Chris and I
were still in our polyester uniforms
caked with day-old batter, setting out
for an evening of passion marks?
Or that an archipelago of grease-stains
smeared the length of our chests?
Or that we wore GAZELLES, matching
sheepskins and the ushanka although
miles from Leningrad. Truth is I lacked
direction, so that when Chris said,
Let’s first cop some blow, I trailed.
A loose spread of dealers guarded
corners. Runners returned from boarded,
three-floor walk-ups, told us to come back
later, troubled by my schoolboy jitters
and lack of hip. Then a kid, large for the chrome
HUFFY he pedaled, said he had the white stuff,
and came to an alley fronted by an iron
gate on a gentrified street edging
Northern Liberties. So dark, I could
barely make out his shape up front
digging pocket deep. I turned to tell Chris
how the night air glowed dark as soil,
how jangling keys made my neck itch,
how maybe this wasn’t so good an idea,
just when the cold opening of gun-barrel
steel poked my head and Chris’s eyes
widened like two water spills before
he bound away into a future of headphones
and release parties. Me? the afterlife?
Had I ever welcomed back the old neighborhood?
You wonder if a yearning persistent
as the seedcorn maggot tunnels through me?
All I know is that a single dog barked his own
vapor and an emptiness echoed through blasted
shells of rowhomes rising above,
and I could not forget the bare,
fingered-branches lacing a series
of powerlines in silhouette to the moon’s
hushed excursion across the battered
fields of our lives that endless night
of ricocheting fear and shame. No one
survives, no one unclasps his few strands
of gold chains or hums AMAZING GRACE
or pours all his measly bills and coins
into the trembling, free hand of his brother
and survives. No one is forced face down
and waits forty minutes to rise and begin
again his march past the ice-crusted dirt,
without friendship or love, who barely knows
why the cry of the earth sets him in motion,
running even from the season’s string of lights
flashing its pathetic shot at cheer — to arrive
here where the page is blank, an afterlife.