A woman sitting in a restaurant,

Over a plate of rice and Chinese pork,

Holds back her hair with one hand, with the other

Presses flat the cheap paperback she’s reading.

I see her there and think about those times

I’ve sat in hotel lounges with a beer

And waited for someone to ask about

The weather. But, it’s early in the evening.

The bar staff’s busy cutting fruit and stocking

Their knee-high fridges tight with jilting bottles.

They glance at me a couple times, as if

Confused that I’d disrupt their busy quiet.

     A few years back, my chimney started smoking.

This was just after Christmas, or, now that

I think about it, maybe just before.

I called a sweep, and from the second he

Got his black sheets spread round the hearth and set

His tools up in an expert semicircle,

He never once—not once, I’m sure—stopped talking.

     At first, he wanted to describe the workings

Of damper, heat shield, chimney: to extoll

The virtues of some mason long ago

Who could not hear us but had done good work.

And then, by turns, he started talking of

The miracles of the Old Testament,

The cross-shaped splattering of blood the Jews

In Egypt brushed upon their doors, one night,

To signal that the angels bringing death

Should pass them by. I saw the other children

Lying in their cribs with fingers curled toward heaven

Or what had snatched their breath. Was he a scout

Or something from some tin shack Bible Church,

Set where the hills go flat, where split-railed horse farms

Give way to sodden fields and trailer parks?

He was, or had been, so he said, at last,

A junior champ in some state Scripture Quiz.

I signed a check and showed him to the door.

     We wait and wait, as if it were a kind of digging

Through ashes for a buried, burning ember.

We press the spines of books until they crack,

And when we’ve seen their stories to the end,

We do not know what we’re to do with them,

As if they’re strangers stopped at the wrong house.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 40
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