It Happens Like This

James Tate - 1943-2015
     I was outside St. Cecelia's Rectory
smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.
It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish
brown here and there. When I started to walk away,
it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered
what the laws were on this kind of thing. There's
a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People
smiled at me and admired the goat. "It's not my goat,"
I explained. "It's the town's goat. I'm just taking
my turn caring for it." "I didn't know we had a goat,"
one of them said. "I wonder when my turn is." "Soon,"
I said. "Be patient. Your time is coming." The goat
stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked
up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew
everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-
man on his beat looked us over. "That's a mighty
fine goat you got there," he said, stopping to admire.
"It's the town's goat," I said. "His family goes back
three-hundred years with us," I said, "from the beginning."
The officer leaned forward to touch him, then stopped
and looked up at me. "Mind if I pat him?" he asked.
"Touching this goat will change your life," I said.
"It's your decision." He thought real hard for a minute,
and then stood up and said, "What's his name?" "He's
called the Prince of Peace," I said. "God! This town
is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there's mystery 
and wonder. And I'm just a child playing cops and robbers
forever. Please forgive me if I cry." "We forgive you,
Officer," I said. "And we understand why you, more than
anybody, should never touch the Prince." The goat and
I walked on. It was getting dark and we were beginning
to wonder where we would spend the night.

More by James Tate

The List of Famous Hats

Napoleon's hat is an obvious choice I guess to list as a famous hat, but that's not the hat I have in mind. That was his hat for show. I am thinking of his private bathing cap, which in all honesty wasn't much different than the one any jerk might buy at a corner drugstore now, except for two minor eccentricities. The first one isn't even funny: Simply it was a white rubber bathing cap, but too small. Napoleon led such a hectic life ever since his childhood, even farther back than that, that he never had a chance to buy a new bathing cap and still as a grown-up--well, he didn't really grow that much, but his head did: He was a pinhead at birth, and he used, until his death really, the same little tiny bathing cap that he was born in, and this meant that later it was very painful to him and gave him many headaches, as if he needed more. So, he had to vaseline his skull like crazy to even get the thing on. The second eccentricity was that it was a tricorn bathing cap. Scholars like to make a lot out of this, and it would be easy to do. My theory is simple-minded to be sure: that beneath his public head there was another head and it was a pyramid or something.

My Great Great Etc. Uncle Patrick Henry

There's a fortune to be made in just about everything 
in this country, somebody's father had to invent 
everything—baby food, tractors, rat poisoning. 
My family's obviously done nothing since the beginning 
of time. They invented poverty and bad taste
and getting by and taking it from the boss. 
O my mother goes around chewing her nails and 
spitting them in a jar: You shouldn't be ashamed 
of yourself she says, think of your family. 
My family I say what have they ever done but 
paint by numbers the most absurd and disgusting scenes 
of plastic squalor and human degradation.
Well then think of your great great etc. Uncle 
Patrick Henry.

The Lost Pilot

for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot 
like the others--the co-pilot, 
for example, I saw him

yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter, 
the poor ignorant people, stare

as if he will compose soon. 
He was more wronged than Job. 
But your face did not rot

like the others--it grew dark, 
and hard like ebony; 
the features progressed in their

distinction. If I could cajole 
you to come back for an evening, 
down from your compulsive

orbiting, I would touch you, 
read your face as Dallas, 
your hoodlum gunner, now,

with the blistered eyes, reads 
his braille editions. I would 
touch your face as a disinterested

scholar touches an original page. 
However frightening, I would 
discover you, and I would not

turn you in; I would not make 
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You

could return to your crazy 
orbiting, and I would not try 
to fully understand what

it means to you. All I know 
is this: when I see you, 
as I have seen you at least

once every year of my life, 
spin across the wilds of the sky 
like a tiny, African god,

I feel dead. I feel as if I were 
the residue of a stranger's life, 
that I should pursue you.

My head cocked toward the sky, 
I cannot get off the ground, 
and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling 
to tell me that you are doing 
well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world, 
and me in this; or that misfortune 
placed these worlds in us.