Town Limits

I

How shy she became when she saw them
outside her kitchen window – her young,
married sister leading the minister’s wife
straight up the front walk. How the two
of them, noticing steam over the dishpan,
called and called. How embarrassed
she was when they opened the pantry door
at last and found her, looking up at them
beside her dog, unable to still her heart.

II

The substitute, far off
at the pulpit, asks who
is new today in church,
then raises his hand.
Nobody laughs. It is his voice
that dazes them, a breezy
lighthearted tone for a joke,
an earnest tone for sympathizing
with their need, a helpless
tone for asking God
to assist them. Up close
after the service as they shake
his hand and look into
his evasive eye, they see
the voice is how
he protects himself from them.

III

“A man’s property,” was what he called his three-
acre lot when they complained about the mess,
and he placed one of his junk machines next
to the road where he said neighbors were driving
on his lawn. There were just ten years of cutting
down trees, and dragging a rusty harrow
over the roots, and skinning off topsoil from the hill
to build up the yard, before the house went quiet
and the rumors started. When they saw him
at town meeting, pale, and skinnier than ever,
even his neighbors felt sorry to see the new
look in his eye which said he had no anger left
about being a have-not: that he never owned a thing.

IV

If this was all
there was to winning
the old farmer’s praise,
the boy didn’t mind
taking up the grain bag
by the barn post.
It wasn’t heavy,
and the newborn kittens
hardly made a sound
as he swung it
and swung it, then
laid it down still
between them, not knowing
he would never let it go.

V

“Pink, and here in the bedroom,
of all places,” the new owners say
to guests touring their house,
“the plumbing coming up through
these beautiful wide-board floors,”

where now there is no trace of the toilet
old Frank put in beside Bernice,
who was by then too sick to get up
from her bed and use the flush
she’d always dreamed of, and woke

sometimes thinking it was a dream,
this seat above a bowl of water
you could release with a small, delicate
handle, right indoors, and called Frank
to make him do it, and said it was beautiful.

VI

When he spoke to neighbors
and friends, casual in his authority,
the wife mostly listened.
“You left out the important part,”
she would say, while he
brushed her aside and went on.
“But that time you took the car
to Canada, I was there with you.”

When they talked about their dogs,
male and female terriers, she
was in charge of the conversation.
“Sometimes she actually
bites him for ignoring her.
You should see him follow her
around then. He sleeps with his head
touching hers, all night long.”

VII

The trouble with Hunts is
that when they tell about
what somebody did
to somebody else you never
know if the somebody did it
or if the other somebody
or somebody else
entirely did it
or should have done it
or would have, though what it
was whoever it was did it
was only something like it
really was or might have been,
or nothing at all like it,
or just nothing, nothing at all.

VIII

It’s not so amazing that Francis
has used his eighty-four-year-
old lungs all morning
to blow a saxophone

with old Cunliffe on the bagpipes,
or that stopping his car
to lean out the window and talk
he hardly strains the seat belt

his dog ate most of,
or that underneath
its skinny band
he’s wearing a Florida shirt

he got out of the clothes closet
in his old house across the road
from the new house he moved into
twelve years back; what’s amazing

is his ability to tell you all
about it in give or take one minute,
including three or four pauses
with yups and a good-bye wave.

-Wesley McNair