The Question of Need
“Does the world really need another picture of me?”
You fill the doorway like a revelation, arms up,
hands on either jamb, in a loose shirt like a sail,
white as my mother’s sheets luffing in the sun and smelling
like nothing was beyond redemption.
It’s late afternoon, I don’t know how I know that.
You tilt your head left, smiling a soft, bare smile, as if
you’re looking at a child, as if everyone on earth has become
a child, and your eyes, known to go swampwater black,
are the brown of a golden retriever’s. You look like you’ve risen
from a dense sleep and come to the door forgiving
everything, welcoming whatever has knocked, believing
this world of ours lies at the shimmering edge of heaven.
It’s a version of hell, a world wallpapered with your face.
Monstrous in its way, I guess, as one where no one sees you.
You know in the end they’re the same. You exit the black
Escalade and the air erupts, flashbulbs strobing you blind.
What they want is not so much to see you as to take you,
seize some kind of evidence, a dollop of dark sweet juju,
proof against the world where no one sees them.
I saw the picture first that summer when I was—what
shall I say, not dying, certainly not living, let’s call it a state
of suspension. I saw a dog once, lying at a roadside,
man crouched beside it, holding its leash. It wasn’t dead
but stricken, struck by something, within or without.
People stopped, but the man just knelt and waited
for its life to return or go. Waited to see what it would need.
I was that dog, and also the man waiting. That summer
you were playing gangster down in Indiana,
a couple hours away, close as you’ll ever get to my neck
of the woods. After a twelve-hour shoot you’d emerge
past midnight to walk the ropeline, smiling,
hugging women and girls, dropping down to talk to a kid,
giving them all what they needed. Picture after poster,
dragging black lines and curves across your own face,
tracing a sign that used to mean your name.
For every picture signed, twenty more taken.
I imagined your hand still moving in your sleep.
Framed in the doorway you were still, present
in the way of one who needs nothing.
I lay by the side of my road, barely breathing.
You weren’t coming out, I wasn’t moving.
Nothing was going to happen. Past and future
equally uninhabitable, I kept to the present,
let the moment fill me as you filled the doorframe.
I’d tilt my head right so our eyes lined up and feel myself
briefly soften back into someone else. All that summer
you hovered there before my eyes, arms spread
like great white wings.
He’s after an intimate relationship with my house,
he says, not kidding. Be my guest, I tell him. She
could use it. He’s way too young for her, but fairly hot,
and heat is the whole point. He takes me around
my place, aiming his ten-thousand-dollar infrared gun
at dormers and corners. Its screen is pure Rothko,
blood orange and lime panels edged by bleeds
of blue where the cold seeps in. I’m paying him
to tell me two things I already know by heart:
what looks solid isn’t, and you’re not only never
secure as you think, you’re never secure, period.
Winter’s coming. This is what we know here
in what they call the Rust Belt. It’s our particular
wisdom, the binding ingredient in the casseroles
and meat loaves. She’s ten years older than I am,
my house. I don’t know how much intimacy
she can stand, but he says she can perform better,
and I nod. Who can’t? Along with the 10K gun,
he comes armed with analogies to explain
energy loss to women only ten years younger
than their houses. My house, he says, has a decent
woolly sweater, but no real windbreaker.
The frosty spaces underneath the eaves? Well,
where do we lose heat first? Our heads, correct.
So we put on hats. He stands over my desk,
where the floor is always cold. After hats, we put on
shoes. So you’re a writer, he says. Are you working
on anything now? Not much, I say, watching a rising
tide of blue air swallow the desk. He nods at
the 8X10 of Johnny Depp my friend swears
was personally signed and says, grinning, That your son?
The world stops briefly while I consider my options:
Yep, I was a pretty busy little seventh-grader . . .
Or: If you must know, he’s the father of my child.
Or: If I were his mother, would I be living
in a two-bedroom Dutch colonial in Kalamazoo, Michigan,
that doesn’t even have a decent windbreaker?
Or: Dude, he’s forgotten more about heat exchange
than you’ll ever learn, and by the way? So have I.
But instead I smile and follow him around as he talks
about home stewardship and what he can get at
through my attic, and how heat seeks cold, or is it cold
that seeks heat? They can’t seem to escape each other,
terrible boundaries. Look at the bluesy blue, creeping in
from crawlspace and closets, slinking into the living
room, slipping around the narrow kitchen, hovering
at the head of my bed, reaching up with numb fingers
through the floor of the study, where the words come
and the photo sits, where we radiate our modicum of heat
like blood-orange suns.