Carl makes me keep one hand in my coat pocket –
“So it looks like you’ve got a knife, dummy,”
when we walk Juanita through the Tenderloin’s
rough-trade streets – no lovers in the fog,
no tourists, just Johns, junkies and fellow
tenants of these cheapest rents, the reason
we live below Juanita and Rose who most nights
turn tricks over our head, usually poor saps
on their way to Nam. Last leave. Big bang.
Our room right by the stairs so we hear
the clomps from each date’s ups and downs.
Up and down. In and out. That’s Carl’s joke.
Later Juanita knocks, asks if we’ll walk her
to the bodega for breakfast where she always
orders cheese grits, “For my two Georgia boys.”
She seems older there. Under those lights.
Not thirty or anything. Just older.
Juanita says she has enemies on the street,
and we believe her because we’re two months
out of Athens, and we believe anything.
We thought the Beats would still be here, waiting
for us to get our deferments, but no,
Snyder’s in Japan, Ginsberg’s who knows where,
and North Beach has gotten expensive,
so here we are, the down side of Nob Hill.
And the more our beards go scruffy-rough
(Carl’s more than mine), the more we keep one hand
stuffed in our leather jackets, we somehow,
barely, pass as muscle for Juanita who likes
to link our arms on our walks and say
she’d “do” us but, “That’d change everything, wouldn’t it?”
We say, “Yes, yes,” and think her terribly romantic
on these trashy streets where we get nods
from hoods she has “history” with,
men we do our best to avoid in daylight
when we catch the trolley down to the docks,
to the ILWU Number 2 hall.
And if our number doesn’t get called
we’re off to the Page Street zendo where
I think of Juanita even while trying to sit –
did she mean she’d do us one at a time
or did she mean the other thing?
I think of her while stacking coffee bean
bags in the bottom hold of a freighter,
days that send me to bed early,
the up-and-down clomping stairs traffic
restful as surf noise until a late night
when strange steps, slow creaky ones, wake me.
A date is sneaking back down (was there trouble?)
before our door locks make their click-snaps,
and Carl is tiptoeing in while I keep faking sleep.
Juanita was right. This changes everything.
Rupert Fike’s second collection of poems, Hello the House, won the 2017 Violet Reed Haas Poetry Prize from Snake Nation Press. He was runner-up as Georgia Author of the Year after the publication of his Lotus Buffet (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2011). His stories and poems have appeared in The Southern Poetry Review, Scalawag Magazine, The Georgetown Review, A&U America’s AIDS Magazine and many others.
Copyright 2018, Rupert Fike