Michael P. Kardos
The Jukebox in Uranium City
~ . ~
Michael P. Kardos
My timing was off. Just as I'd returned from my vacation (from work--I hadn't actually gone anywhere), Tanya had left for hers. My idea had been to turn a casual conversation into lunch plans, a sort of ambiguous meal, maybe a date, maybe not, though by the end of it I'd ask for her number and we'd be off and running. That had been my idea, but now I hadn't seen her for two weeks, not since she walked away from me in Africa.
I think Tanya was an assistant manager or something at the Atlantic Eatery, the only restaurant in the park that served alcohol. It was near North America, the largest exhibit. Tanya didn't wear a tie like the manager did, but she didn't wear a green striped uniform either. She seemed like an assistant manager.
"Why'd you walk away from me that morning in Africa?" I asked when I saw her finally. It had been odd. I'd been giving my shtick to the sixth-graders of the Clifton middle school, and when it came time for them to ride the robotic elephant, I saw Tanya eyeing me. But when I said, "Hey!" she just turned around and walked away, her behind swaying like a hypnotist's pocketwatch. The next day my vacation had kicked in, and we hadn't spoken since.
She was sweeping now in quick, efficient strokes, making the walkway in front of the Atlantic Eatery clean for the customers. Behind her on the restaurant's walls were painted brightly colored fish that waved with their fins and wore little hats.
Tanya glanced up at me for a moment, then back down as if the dirt were more interesting. "You were telling it wrong."
"Wrong? What wrong?"
"Like a typical American." She kept sweeping. "You were talking about Africa like a typical American."
"What can I say? I'm from Kearney, New Jersey."
"Still. They don't all wear bones."
"Bones." She stopped sweeping and looked at me. "In their noses, Jimmy. They don't all do that." Tanya had giant brown eyes that I wanted to lick if I could.
"Who said anything about bones?"
"They're not uncivilized. Just so you know."
"Who said 'uncivilized'? Look, I think--"
"--Oh, believe me, I know exactly what you think."
I thought back three weeks, but couldn't remember anything unusual about my day with the Clifton kids. We'd toured them around the seven continents, given them frozen pizza and soda, and sent them back to their teachers who'd spent the day in the parking lot smoking cigarettes. It had been entirely uneventful.
"Do you want to have lunch today?" I asked.
"Ha!" she said. "You don't get a damn thing." Then she said, "Okay."
I don't know if Tanya stood out because she was so beautiful or if everyone else here was extra ugly. During my first week giving tours I'd taken my lunch break at the Atlantic Eatery and seen her standing on a ladder changing light bulbs. When she stretched, I could see her thin ankles. One of them had a silver anklet around it. I needed to talk to her but couldn't think of what I'd casually say to someone busy changing light bulbs on a ladder, so I walked up to the base of the ladder and asked, "Do you guys sell ice cream?"
There was a board behind the cashiers listing the items sold: Pizza, Burgers, Dogs, Cookies, Soda, Iced Tea, Lemonade.
"Huh?" she said. "No."
Our conversation the following day had lasted longer. She had just yelled at a customer for dipping his used fork into a vat of mustard, and afterwards I'd joked with her about it. We were on friendly terms after that, and I started to think that maybe she liked me.
"'Third World,' Jimmy. When you used that phrase, I wanted to kick you in the head."
We were seated at a picnic table away from the main path, under a tall oak tree that dropped acorns. I was eating a cheeseburger. She'd brought a salad from home. I noticed the salad she'd made had avocado chunks in it, which I found creative.
"Don't you see?" Tanya said. "It makes their lives sound less important, like everyone's got to be measured up to some American standard."
"Come on. You're kidding me, aren't you?"
"I don't want those lily-white kids leaving here thinking Africans are all running around in the jungle with spears. Understand?" I didn't particularly care what the kids left thinking. It was a stupid job that I'd found in the newspaper. I had memorized, more or less, what my manager had given me on handwritten sheets that looked like copies of copies.
I was going to say: 'You should hear what I say about the Australians, the lousy criminals.' But Tanya had conviction, so I tabled the joke. This was the first time we'd eaten together and I didn't want to blow it. "Hey, sure," I said. "I won't say 'Third World'."
To be honest, it felt good agreeing to Tanya's wishes. I felt mature and respectful--although her scent of sweat and perfume would have made me do anything she asked. Sitting together, just being there with our elbows inches apart while cicadas buzzed in the trees and Sousa marches played in the distance through hidden speakers, I realized that maybe respect and horny scheming weren't so different after all.
We ate our lunches and spoke in fits and starts. At one point (I'd just told her that someday I would become famous), she looked me over closely, shook her head, and said that we had 'not one thing' in common. I panicked and blurted, "We're both were sitting there eating lunch together. At least we have that in common."
Stupid, I know. Yet it must have been the right thing to say because she smiled. When she did, I saw a little piece of lettuce in her teeth. It wasn't up front though, so I let it go. When an acorn whizzed by my face, whomped onto the tabletop and spun to a stop, I took it as a cue. "Let's walk to Antarctica," I suggested. She said she only had ten minutes left but agreed.
Except for the plastic penguins, we were alone. I'm not sure whether we were on a date, but those frozen fruit drinks from the Antarctica Freezer tasted delicious as summer. We sucked them down hard and got stinging headaches, and then sat there in some kind of stunned, post-icicle afterglow for not ten but twenty minutes, watching green-dyed water lap up against sheets of manufactured ice.
(Michael P. Kardos was raised on the Jersey Shore and worked as a professional drummer before entering Ohio State University’s MFA program in creative writing, where he has just completed his first year.)
~ . ~
The Jukebox in Uranium City
I divide the mail into two heaps. Junk and junk. There is a gambling expedition to Deadwood City, a bulletin from the Psychic Readers Network, a free newspaper to all city employees telling us it's been a difficult year but the next twelve months are promising. If we pull together. If we make the effort. Making the effort, the newspaper says, means our future will be better than our past.
I consider this over the Sumatran, drawn from a perc that maintains a steady lukewarm regime throughout the day, sighing occasionally, occasionally increasing the sigh to a grumble. A future that is better than the past. Only a politician could write that. Only a politician could be so convinced of the exact moment when the platitudinous becomes the vacuous. When meaning finally disappears like the guttering of marsh gas.
It is not that politicians in this country are liars. This country is like most countries. A jigsaw whose pieces don't fit. But it is the politicians' determination that we should feel good about ourselves that irritates. Slick-haired persuaders who look like holograms of themselves, they perform with the certainty of Christian pop singers, promising us a future as if it was a hotel room they were sure had been properly cleaned before the next occupation. I prefer the past. The past is the settlement of Ffynnon Pwll, the darkling canvases in Italian churches, the third movement of the Eroica. Beat that, future. It's not that these politicos lie. I don't think they have the brass gizzards to lie. It's that truth evaporates around them. That nimbus of static about those people. That fuzz. It's not their cologne or their hairspray. It's not raindrops on the microphones, the hiss of rewinding videotape. It is the truth evaporating. Listen. You can hear its slowly disappearing sibilance.
I turn on the radio that is rarely off. Shostakovich encodes a symphony with dissent. A provincial government wishes to turn an iceberg into vodka. Galician fishermen are arrested for catching turbot and are insulted by persons with Irish accents. No-one has heard of Galicia, that unsung Celtic realm. No-one has heard of turbot. But they are the last fish on the Grand Banks, on the Nose and Tail. The Galician nets are of such fine mesh they would snare mosquitoes. The baby turbot are no bigger than sweet chestnut leaves. After they have become Tokyo pizza or New York sushi the sea will be empty, a mall at evening with the drawbridges up. First it was the bison. Their bones like a wrecker's yard on a Texan plain. Then the passenger pigeon. When the pigeons flew over the prairie the sky filled with strange weather, an indigo dust before the dustbowl. In the natural history museums their feathers turn to ashes, their eyes are shirt-buttons.
And now the cod are only a dream. The shoals that pulsed like nebulae under the oceans are a guilty memory here. This country's people wear their guilt as a badge of nationhood. Guilt proves something; like little boys comparing scars. And now here are the turbot, a species plucked from fathomless anonymity, dissected by radio, a last tribe holding out. How do you cook it? asks the presenter. The expert tells how. What does it taste like? Passenger pigeon, I want to say. Buffalo jerky. And then Shostakovich is back, his symphony scored in invisible ink, the violins whispering in eerie assonance, a sound that refuses extinction, the casual vanishings.
Down at the Greyhound station I meet Mars. He is sucking like a walrus on his plastic inhaler and greets me with a fierce asthmatic shrug.
"Thought you'd given up cocaine."
"Fuck you and this climate. Air's so dry there's nothing to dampen the dust."
Mars is not his real name but it's what everyone uses. Because his last name is Barlow and because he has been known to put away a five-pack of those chocolate bars. Mars Barlow is a sugar junkie and weighs two hundred and eighty pounds. He is a big man with small lungs, a sweetly paranoiac Leo of large ecstasies, titanic glooms. Big but rarely warlike. Now he exchanges the inhaler for a goldleafed cigar. Mars is getting his fix in the departure lounge because there is no smoking on the bus.
"Hear the fucking news?"
"About the fish?"
"Fuck the fish. No. The Second Airborne, the paratroopers. The government's disbanding it."
"Well they were torturing..."
Somebody nudges me from behind and we move closer towards the silver corrugations of the Greyhound's luggage compartment. A man using a pike to arrange cases and knapsacks in this deck of the bus squints up at Mars.
"You John Candy?"
Mars examines the bubbling tip of his cigar, but before he can speak the luggage packer corrects himself.
"Nope, he's dead, so yah can't be. Can yah?"
The morning is blue through the smoked glass. We glide past Robin's Donuts and a Mennonite church. There is some snow left, the backbones of drifts, a dusting over the khaki grass in front yards, hidden five months. I glimpse the rear of a mall, a space without feature or use. From the parking lot of Julian's Ribs a Cree child scowls up at the wall of the bus. The grey billow to the right is the breath of the power-plant, feeding the city cell by cell, block by block. Near Thirty Third Street we cross railway tracks and a parcel of land unwrapped and abandoned. Anonymity rolls like a fog behind us, ahead. Mars is plugged into Glenn Gould, Jimi Hendrix or Bach's partitas, the cassette cartridges scattered on the seat beside him. His opened lumberjacket reveals a teeshirt splashed with a Nietzschean text. But Mars is a churchgoer. For the ritual, he says. For the mystery. In a city of straight roads and no hills the mystery is important. It's what keeps him going. That and his library, a basement shrine. That and his trusty inhaler. That and the odd forty burnished ounces of Bushmills.
Mars has brought two books. One is a substantial Heidegger. The other a paperback X Files. Stories about flesh-eating microbes, autopsies on inhabitants of other worlds crash-landed in the desert, superviruses that can wipe out cities like a neutron bomb. All based on fact, he says. Like it's happening now, man, it's here. Although he is a churchgoer, I know that Mars has stolen both books. He has told me about his expeditions to the secondhand bookshops of this city, the coffee houses with their shelves of gay poetry and twenty-first century witchcraft, the big Coles stores in the plazas with their walls of Stephen King.
According to Mars, stealing books is not theft. It is an essential distribution of knowledge and beauty. All right, stealing books is theft, but what the hell. It's an intellectual and emotional challenge. And as Heidegger or Steely Dan said, you can't buy a thrill. So there he sits with the latest strain of green monkey disease, the philosopher's stone. Like a man with a beer and a shot. Sipping one, barely holding the other to his mouth, his nose. Breathing the heavy aroma. And all the while the partita a trapped wasp inside his headset.
"Just goin' to the crapper," Mars informs anyone who wants to know and lurches up the aisle. We haven't spoken to each other for an hour. I think both of us are appalled at the amount of time we have to spend together on the Greyhound. There are wars that have started and finished in shorter periods. But this is the prairie, where the hands of clocks turn at a barometrical pace. This is the prairie under its last snow, the colour of my trouser pocket.
Mars lives on the prairie because he teaches prairie children prairie literature. Mars hates the prairie almost as much as he hates prairie literature. And Mars is a man who finds comfort in hatred, its desperate sugars. Hatred burns in his eyes with a comic sugary light as he describes arts administrators, college faculties, prairie academies. Because of his hatred of local writing, Mars has created a computer literary magazine for others on the internet. He calls it Chaff. Or @ Mars Chaff.,. to subscribers.
Mars urges fellow thinkers to contribute to Chaff the worst examples of fiction and verse published in literary magazines. The only criteria for inclusion are technical ineptitude and gross unoriginality. Ideally, submissions possess both qualifications. Chaff gives annual prizes, awarding the three most outstanding entries a laurel of stinkweed, a fanfare of anal trumpeting. In his basement, surrounded by plundered theology and science fiction, Mars Barlow accumulates an electronic anthology of dross. Anyone on line to the internet can contribute. Certain cruel souls have been known to offer poetry written by Mars himself. It has always been graciously included. This work is gleefully subversive. It is, he says, when he can summon the energy for the task, important work. In his basement, Mars Barlow, unencumbered by literary honours and unembarrassed by sectarian allegiances, is creating a reputation for himself. But Mars Barlow is not a popular man.
We stop at a small town. One of the yards is filled with rowan trees. A shivering flock of bohemian waxwings is stripping the fruit. The berries have hung there for six months, a vineyard in which the waxwings come to brawl. Mars gets back on with a bag of doughnuts, a Big Gulp and a newspaper. Predictably, he is incensed.
"Man, it's Caligulan. We live in Caligulan times."
"Is that the name of the paper?"
"Is it the fish?"
"Fuck the fish. It's the fox. The Fox network. Aw, those cheeseheads. They only wanna show this poor American sucker's execution. Like live. Like live on prime time. Holy ejaculating Jesus."
He waves a page in front of me and stokes up on a doughnut. The town outside is so quiet I can hear a vee of geese overhead, a clumsy brass ensemble, going straight north. Mars coughs sugar, takes a draught out of the Gulp, then a slug from a flask and gargles Irish.
"See what they wanna do is get us to pay, to pay for the privilege of watching some poor piece of white trash strapped on a gurney and some doctor slipping him a lethal mickey and us watching some more for the last twitch. Maybe we even get to see when he shits his pants. Whoopee. Who's got the remote?"
I nod my encouragement. Mars is on a roll.
"Seems the star of the proceedings is some twenty year old rapist-murderer. Jeezus, don't you just know the sort? Too scared to feel anything, I mean anything, 'less there's Schlitz for breakfast or china white in the grits. Sad little jerk. Just a shake 'n' bake. Should have been riding with Glanton in Blood Meridian, not pumping gas and chasing ass around Muskogee or whatever God-forsaken stretch of tornado country he was wagging his jism at."
"So he should have got life?"
"Chrissakes, no. I'd pull the lever myself. Got an eighteen year old daughter, friend, so don't look to me for mercy. What I'm asking is why does it have to be a page in the TV guide? What's wrong with a little private ceremony no-one ever gets to hear about?"
Mars flourishes the flask and I roll a corrosive globule of the nectar around my teeth. It seems the giant has subsided. His eyes are closed. Gouldian notes pass like photons in his head. This reverie I imagine could be based as easily on Newman's prose as the media coma which he believes has overwhelmed us. The X Files is cracked open on his chest. I borrow the bottle.
We pass an alkaline slough surrounded by birches. A red hawk lifts off from a fencepost. The lakes are numberless now and unnamed, a powder of snow on a metre of frozen ice, the beaver dams like broken wickiups. Last week in the wind chill it was fifty-five below, but the teenage girls would still show their pale navels to the world, a denim jacket over a short vest, the shampoo rinse stiffening in their hair. Here is a farm where the dogwood has grown through the floor of a limousine. An old man holding a go-cup observes our cataracts of spray. For a moment the satellite bowl in his yard resembles a threshing machine.
There is an art to riding buses. Time passes differently, despite the video monitors suspended over the seats, the toilet cubicle at the rear, the accoutrements of aeroplanes. People who ride buses now are much the same as the people who always rode buses. They are the people you don't find on aeroplanes. Native women, mottled with bruises, withdrawn. Old men in stained trousers, subversively ugly. These people know about time and how it passes. They know about bus station restaurants, the chipped tankards of coffee, the grilled cheese adorned with watery eyes of dill. They smoke and gaze at the formica. They never glance at the clock or listen to the departure announcements. They know exactly what time it is, and their destinations were fixed a long while ago.
I remember the last journey I made on a bus. The last journey before this journey. I left the house during a three day blizzard. There was an armoury of icicles under the eaves. I moshed through a bulwark of snow at the front door. There was no time to clear the driveway or the sidewalk, but the mailman would wear mukluks anyway.
I was trying to reach the town of Wales. Perhaps it was not a town anymore, but there it was on the map. Not far now, the map said, but the map lied. No bus went within one hundred miles of Wales. No train went within one hundred and twenty. When I telephoned the nearest post office they asked if I knew anyone in Wales. They could pick you up. But I knew no-one in Wales. I knew no-one in all that Dakotan snow. There is nothing, said the girl at the Grey Goose terminal. There is nothing there at all. I pointed to the map but she said no there is nothing. Do you know anyone who could take you there? But I knew no-one in Wales, and anyway, the girl said, perhaps it isn't there anymore. Places disappear you know. That's why there are no buses.
Yet I could see Wales. Each house with a flag and a dish and the snow filling the television screens. A white prairie and a white sky and no frontier between them. I could see the sign, the snow covering it like convolvulus. I could feel my hand stinging when I brushed the snow away. That night as I travelled on the journey before this journey, the Academy Awards were being transmitted live. All around the world the same audience was tuning into the Oscars. I looked out of the window and the sky was white and the prairie was white and the screen above my head was filled with interference, a glimmering of twilight where the whiteness lived. A Welsh film was being nominated for an Academy Award and a fragment of it flew around the world. I had queued in Wales to see Silence of the Lambs. The sky was white, the air excited with spore. The local hero played a doctor who tore out people's tongues. When we arrived back outside on the pavement after the film the sky was a negative of itself. When I looked at the people with my cinema eyes they were all negatives. I waited on the pavement for the car and was afraid for myself. There is no way out of this, I thought. There is no escape from this. The dishes on the prairie sucked the signals down, each a dark stamen, a flower filled with snow.
Outside, the blizzard was all around us but the bus drove on, stopping for no weather, merciless. The snow became so thick it hid the lights of the houses. Hannibal Lecter lived in a cage in Wales but nothing could hold him. The local hero spoke for the Welsh film at the Academy Awards but it did not win an Oscar. Hannibal Lecter escaped to wander anywhere in the world. The mass murderer found a way out as we always knew he would. We knew it like the passengers knew the time, gazing at their grilled cheese, not listening to announcements. The sky was white and the prairie was white and in every home in Wales the Academy Awards were being broadcast, and there was the fragment of the Welsh film, applauded and vanishing, and there was the local hero, applauded and vanishing, and there was Dr. Hannibal Lecter applauding, the mass murderer out of his cage, moving freely anywhere in the world, on the bus that travelled through the blizzard, in the town of Wales that was not a town, travelling anywhere he chose.
The bus had become bacterially warm. It stopped at a Chicken Delight. People wanted wings. In the queue at the takeaway section of the restaurant they regarded the Academy Awards ceremony. Hungry, too scared to move, I watched through the glass. The award winners cried and thanked their mothers for always believing in them. What a marvellous world it is, they said. But this used to be a different world. I could remember it. I was haunted by it like the memory of another family, another identity. It was what I was before I became what I am now. It was where I was before I arrived at where I am now. It was a different world. Then the queue at Chicken Delight vanished. People had their wings. They settled back around me, hid under coats, sipped from styrofoam. A baby whimpered at the back of the bus. I had not known there was a baby on board. And we followed the white lines of the blizzard towards another small town.
"But it's such a perfect symbol for the whole schizo fucking country."
"Disbanding a regiment. No other country in the west has done it. Or would every do it for those reasons. 'Cept France. And that was only when half the fucking Foreign Legion went stir crazy. But to destroy the paratroopers because of bad behaviour? It's bizarre. Do bears shit in the woods?"
"They were torturing people."
"Yeah, okay. The peacekeeping mission was a mistake. Like I say, paras and peacekeeping are oxymoronic. Or whatever. But we've trained the bastards to be like that. We wanted an army. They were the cutting edge."
"Well, who's to blame?"
"This country, man. What else? Those boys are paratroopers and we're asking them to play patacake. What are they supposed to do? Drop behind enemy lines and give out Margaret Atwood novels?"
The doughnuts are gone. Mars is all sugared up. For a man whose breath is sometimes so short he cannot get a tune out of his inhaler, this is some performance. But carbon is his amphetamine. His beard, the buff of waxwings, marbled grey, shows a ring of crystal. Mars has also uttered the A word, an inevitable detonator
"Aw, man, this country. I was born on an island. And where I was born the pine trees went right down to the ocean. Big suckers, dripping moss. You could walk into that pine gloom and smell the trees and the ocean together. Fantastic. Like your own sweat. But can I afford to live there? It's condos and marinas for software writers and gameshow hosts. I see those reserved parking spaces and those no trespassing signs, and I think, man, I could be a serial killer. I could. I could waste those fuckers like they're wasting my island."
"Get the paras in there."
"Naw, man. It's too late. This is Atwood country now. Give it twenty years and she'll have her face on the stamps and the coins. Look at me. White, British descent, male, forty-five. Do you know what that means in this country? It means end of the line. Like, it's over for me, man. What's to show? Teaching kids that don't wanna be taught. Run-ins with the department. A drawer full of ten year old poetry nobody will publish because there's no grain elevators in it. No pension. Give it twenty years, no, Chrissakes, ten, and I'll be sweeping up the tailings in a uranium mine. Uranium City, man. Husky shit. It's the last stop."
"You've published a lot."
"But I don't follow the play. In the arts world this country's like the Soviet Union. Our arts adminnows are just cultural apparatchiks. Meaningless meetings. Pride, mediocrity and expenses. So conform, conform. Say the right thing. An autocracy of the second rate. Third rate. Critical theory written by people who don't like literature. Gotta be PC. But people like me won't play that game. Write a novel about fist fucking and you hit the talk shows, the big grants. Tell your students to read Kafka or Lawrence and you get slapped down for inappropriate teaching methods. You know, I've seen eighteen year olds cry, cry man, because they couldn't understand King Lear. They're not challenged, man. Always thought the jukebox was gonna give them Aerosmith. So when Stravinsky comes on, like, wow, there's something wrong. Jeez, man. We're clearcutting the imagination. Have an army but make sure it smells nice. Yeah, there were psychos in that regiment. But wouldn't you rather have them in the barracks jerking each other off than following your wife round downtown Medicine Hat? Pretend there's equality. Calls Indians First People but don't mention who's sniffing gasoline. You know what the Cree bands are doing up round Meadow Lake? Lobbying for a nuclear waste dump. For it, man. On their land. That so called immemorial land. And why? Jobs. Money. I'd take a city job with a contract. Mailman, garbage collector with all the retirement trimmings. You're laughing but I'd do it. My classes want to do résumés, not essays on Emily Dickinson. Least I'd have some energy left. Like for my writing."
Writing is a sore point for Mars Barlow. He is a poet who isn't poetifying. He tells me that last year's output was exactly one haiku. This year he ceremonially burned it. Mars calls his writer's block the permafrost. Unbreachable for most of the time, it yet once allowed a brief dappling of the tundra. These days the iron is in the soil the twelve months round. There are no grain elevators in the Mars Barlow universe. No mom, no pop, no family farm. So no writing that Mars thinks anyone wants. In a way he is proud of his retention. For Mars, paratroopers jump. That is what they do. Band Aid in a camouflage jacket is no part of the game.
I like to think I understand Greyhound time. I don't understand it but I like to think I might. Now there is darkness and I have not spoken for some hours. I try to remember the last thing I saw. That farmer beside his ruined farm, the fields gone to quackgrass? But perhaps that was the last journey, the journey before this. I try to remember the other passengers but am not sure now where they belong. The bruised native woman. The old man in stained trousers. Maybe they were the same journey as the journey of the thousand frozen sloughs. That journey was the journey of the dune system of drifts, their brows fuming. Another journey was a pale child who wrote in a spiral-topped notebook. Outside the Chicken Delight she had stood in the snow and taken out a cigarette. She couldn't light it so she went inside with her notebook. I had watched her through the glass. Slight; a thin jacket covered in X's and O's. She lit the cigarette and then ignored it, ordered nothing, clutched her book. About fourteen, I thought, but the cigarette disconcerted. Yet she had smoked at every stop. Once she had asked me the time which gave her away. A new traveller. Experienced travellers always feel the time. She came back with a pattern of snowflakes disappearing from her shoulders, revealing again the X's and O's. She curled up opposite, knees under her chin, and began writing. When I glanced across, I saw she had written a heading and underlined it.
She was a journey. She was the journey before this journey. I think it was on her journey that I saw the deepest snow I had seen for years. The sky was white and the prairie was white. But the blizzard had stilled itself and we had come to a small town. There was snow in the trees, on the ground, on the houses in the trees, the tiny houses hidden amongst the white skeletons of the trees. There were two abandoned petrol pumps, each topped with a mitre of snow. Behind them was a sign for the town covered by a smoking drift. I wanted to brush the snow away and could feel it stinging my hand. But the bus did not stop in the small town and all I remember is that there were no footsteps there. The snow told a secret. There were no footsteps from the houses through the snow and no footsteps returning to the houses. The snow was perfect. Perhaps to touch it would have been a misdemeanour in that town. No-one had come out of the houses and no-one had gone in. The flags hung flat in the yards. Snow rags. The dishes pointed at the sky, delicate snouts scenting. No-one came back because no-one had left. Or no-one had left because no-one had come back. The girl was writing in her spiral-topped notebook. But she was another journey. She was the last journey before this journey.
On this journey the lamps are out, the travellers sunk in the inscrutable. A baby whimpers at the back of the bus. I didn't know there was a baby on board. Mars is sprawled over the reclining seat, in his chest a songbird's snore. Outside is the night's prairie, starless it would seem, but overhead Polaris must be signalling, and the ember of Aldebaran. Half way up my window is the night's companion, the moon, waxed to the full, a beaten Bushmills gold. Around it are two aureoles of paler light, omegas of dust. In his cubicle the driver exercises his neck muscles, then sits back from the phosphorescent controls. He is almost invisible, a dark man-shape cut from the air, a ghost who guides the ghost of a wheel. And so we ride.
(Robert Minhinnick appears in a series of readings this month in New York and Los Angeles beginning on October 16 at Here (145 Spring Street). The editor of Poetry Wales [See Review, Sept. 2001], he is a Welsh language contributor to The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Welsh Poetry in Translation, due out next year, and translator of Six Modern Welsh Poets, forthcoming from Carcanet in 2003. His Selected Poems appeared in 1999, and his new collection, After the Hurricane, has just come out (both from Carcanet). He is the winner of the UK's Cholmondeley and Forward Best Poem Prize. "The Jukebox in Uranium City" is from his essay collection, Badlands (Seren, 1996). A new essay collection, Babel and Back, is scheduled for release in 2003 (Seren).)