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Gull River, Minden, the last river drive, 1929

Gull River, Minden, the last river drive, 1929

He loved Mark Twain,
owned a full set of Kipling
though I never saw his cabin
or the back of his head. He sat
at a table near the pot-bellied stove,
the only customer, shuffling and
fanning a worn deck of cards to
chase the arthritis from his
blue-knuckled hands.

His eyes were button black
and bright, features like oak
burl from a burned-out forest.
He scared me a little, the way he
stared, but a twitch of the barkeep’s
chin told me wusses weren’t welcome
in these parts, and what did I have to lose
that was so god-almighty precious? So
I bought him a Jim Beam, hot chocolate
spiked with same for me and asked
if I could join him.

Most of what we talked about, the
lumberjack and me, is not for me to
share, but some things he said to write
verbatim because I would forget, pretend
I never heard, so here they are.

***

None of us is blind, not really, but our long
distance vision and capacity for surprise
are limited to the dimensions of the raft
we build and ride from tedium.

Hack away at the back and sides of your
belief in life’s beauty for too long, you’ll be
leaping from moment to moment in dread
like a frog in the log chute of a cyanide river.

Sure, the world’s polluted, but nowhere’s more
than between your ears, where the negative builds
with no place to go, sucking in more of itself.

The news you spread, if it’s larded with misery,
will clog your heart faster than a shipload of bacon.

Most of my friends and none of my enemies
died that way, and they’re still gimping around
holding in the good and the hopeful, relieved to
be a little sicker every day, but not too much,
so as not to vanish from the conversations
of men and women altogether.

Whatever chased you here to find me
at the end of the world is the same
mother lode that’ll lure you back.

Sure, those laugh lines, they’re gonna
set deeper, but you’ll forgive the things
that made you rush and will always
look pretty when you blush.

And when you finally meet that
friend of yours, you know the one,
remind him to make the most of what
you see in one another, or next time—
I’m not kidding—it’ll be me who comes
a-courting with violets tied in yellow
ribbon and a fresh rainbow trout.

© Elaine Stirling, 2012

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