This is a poem about gun violence and uncertainty. The murderers of Barry Cunnane were never found.
Stirring nominated this poem for a Pushcart Prize. The poem is also available in my 2009 collection Card Tricks for the Starving published by Ghost Road Press.
THINGS YOU CAN'T EXPECT
for Barry Cunnane
Being met at the airport with news
your friend was killed on Saturday night
while you were sneaking a box of chocolates
to your nephew, who's four, whom you're meeting
for the first time, hundreds of miles away.
I watched him nibble each one around
the edges--then devour or set aside:
This is my favorite, so I'm saving it for last.
Two men walk up to someone and empty
the back of his head with one shot,
leave him to spread on the sidewalk
like a broken bottle of wine.
I drive old country roads with the kid,
who's too smart to ignore. When we pass
the old church he says, There's a graveyard
in every town. Everyone dies except us.
We're conspiring more chocolates,
and I hope that his wisdom can keep us forever,
like the cemetery stones where we sit
while I try to explain why he should be
less like my family, and more like me.
But I don't realize the migraine the sugar
will churn in his head, the hornet's nest
I will frenzy by the end of the day
when I face the god-like wrath of my sister,
whose love is a straight-back chair,
but also a country-charm duck.
And I'm not normal.
I know why she hid him from me
as long as she did: My friends
hug trees with their cars, shoot fire
in their veins, are gunned down
by strangers--and for Godsake,
I might as well have fed my nephew
a chocolate-covered razor blade.
Don't you know anything? I don't.
So I stand stupid in the airport,
a hangnail in the fist of travelers,
apprehending the absurd. I come home to
a dead plant in my window, a dead fish
in my tank, and who knows what other friends
I should call just to check on. Death
is a cement mixer lurching beside me.
Walking up South Halsted's stretch of wide spaces,
vacant lots, and rotted-shingle storefronts,
it isn't sorrow, but an opening of myself
to the world and its parking-lot truth
that to love is to be swallowed
by something bigger than myself.
And don't I long for the exchange
of pigeons waiting for breadcrumbs,
or table scraps finding a mouth?
Young mother pushing the baby carriage;
shopkeeper angling his ladder above;
the woman who sells me candy
whose tattooed tear swears that the world
will always be what it was;
teenagers on the corner, cradling
orange sodas and cigarettes, who for all I know
might put bullets in me just for walking by;
my family and dead friends, like burs
stuck in my skin or chocolates lodged
in my throat. The car swerves and misses.
I hadn't realized I'd stepped into the street.
The horn trails off, and I'm lucky, I guess,
for all that does not happen. When I get home
I want to call my sister and say, I'm okay,
given the given. I want to tell my nephew
the truth his chocolates conceal:
we all die eventually, and no one knows when,
but we have to hope we're God's favorites,
that maybe he'll save us for last.