She came home and smelled gas hissing from a jet, the room
waiting for a match, a spark, the blue snap
of a cat rubbing against a chair.
When the stove was off,
the windows and doors open, when she could breathe safe,
she remembered the night a car swiped her car,
off the road into weeds taller than the car, the green ranks
smothering her vision, as though she was driving underwater,
before she remembered brakes, mired the car to a halt.
Maybe we live between this catastrophe and the next.
On the last night of the twentieth century, I sat with
my wife and a friend and watched a hotel implode in Las Vegas.
At midnight, half the country was convinced our systems
would all break down.
I knew of people hoarding canned goods,
ammunition, their quiet houses remodeled to hold off
the assaults of we who had not planned so well.
in the living room of our unprovisioned house and forgot
to mark midnight coming and going until the phone rang,
a friend, alight with champagne and perhaps relief that
the lights were still on, calling to greet us at the start
of the only new century we will see. Behind his voice.
I could hear his wife at the piano, ignoring
as my wife did, our jokes about famine and pestilence.
It is one of our ways of keeping time:
the month of the assassination, the week the plane crashed.
The day cancer’s cruel whittling stopped. And the larger,
slower unravelings: the evaporation of ice caps, the collapse
of governments. The wobble of economies. Things we heed
despite our lack of control. Perhaps we speak of them
so endlessly because we know our lack of power,
in shock after a marriage ends, a band breaks up,
leaving them unable to speak of anything else.
Since that night, I’ve wondered what song my wife’s friend played.
If the year when everything breaks down arrives,
find me still wondering about a song on a night when
a building’s collapse was entertainment. An entertainment
I would watch again, even as I wondered what precipice
we balanced on the edge of, what we will survive
and enter the struggle again. The woman smoking
on her back porch tossed memory aside and walked back
inside the house where it was now safe to breathe.
Al Maginnes’ latest collection, Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift, has just been published by Redhawk Publications. Earlier books are The Next Place (Iris Press, 2017) and Music From Small Towns (Jacar Press, 2014), winner of the Jacar Press poetry prize. Forthcoming or recent poems are in Tar River Poetry, Slipstream, Lake Effect and American Journal of Poetry, among others. I live in Raleigh NC where I have recently retired from teaching and am trying to figure out what comes next.