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B. H. Fairchild is the author of Usher (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

On the Waterfront

B. H. Fairchild
—know thyself

Flashlight in hand, I stand just inside the door
in my starched white shirt, red jacket nailed shut
by six gold buttons, and a plastic black bowtie,
a sort of smaller movie screen reflecting back
the larger one. Is that really you? says Mrs. Pierce,
my Latin teacher, as I lead her to her seat
between the Neiderlands, our neighbors, and Mickey Breen,
who owns the liquor store.  Walking back, I see
their faces bright and childlike in the mirrored glare
of a tragic winter New York sky.  I know them all,
these small-town worried faces, these natives of the known,
the real, a highway and brown fields, and New York
is a foreign land—the waterfront, unions, priests,
the tugboat's moan—exotic as Siam or Casablanca.
I have seen this movie seven times, memorized the lines:
Edie, raised by nuns, pleading—praying, really—
Isn't everyone a part of everybody else?
and Terry, angry, stunned with guilt, Quit worrying
about the truth.  Worry about yourself, while I,
in this one-movie Kansas town where everyone
is a part of everybody else, am waiting darkly
for a self to worry over, a name, a place,
New York, on 52nd Street between the Five Spot
and Jimmy Ryan's where bebop and blue neon lights
would fill my room and I would wear a porkpie hat
and play tenor saxophone like Lester Young, but now,
however, I am lost, and Edie, too, and Charlie,
Father Barry, Pop, even Terry because he worried
more about the truth than he did about himself,
and I scan the little mounds of bodies now lost even
to themselves as the movie rushes to its end,
car lights winging down an alley, quick shadows
fluttering across this East River of familiar faces
like storm clouds cluttering a wheat field or geese
in autumn plowing through the sun, that honking,
that moan of a boat in fog.  I walk outside
to cop a smoke, I could have been a contender, 
I could have been somebody instead of who I am,
and look across the street at the Army-Navy store
where we would try on gas masks, and Elmer Fox
would let us hold the Purple Hearts, but it's over now,
and they are leaving, Goodnight, Mr. Neiderland,
Goodnight, Mrs. Neiderland, Goodnight, Mick, Goodnight,
Mrs. Pierce, as she, a woman who has lived alone
for forty years and for two of those has suffered through
my botched translations from the Latin tongue, smiles,
Nosce te ipsum, and I have no idea what she means.

"On the Waterfront", from Usher by B. H. Fairchild. Copyright © 2009 by B. H. Fairchild. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

B. H. Fairchild

B. H. Fairchild is the author of Usher (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).