The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Heather Altfeld

A Stop at Willoughby

                           for Rod Serling

 

O, handsome apocalypse,
master of the unexplained,
purveyor of bodies electric!
My mother dressed for you a little

even though you aired
while her feet still hurt after work;
she did not remove the pantyhose
or run to terrycloth her tush
until the entirety of the broadcast had run,

two episodes she could name after a sentence
of the opening, an anonymous competitor
in a more finite version of Name That Tune
She is old enough to have seen television
as a curtain, or a doorway,
a thin pane of glass between the air

and the waves that brought you to us,
both impossible and very near,
as though she could reach into the distance
of it and pull out a Milky Way bar, or an amulet,
or an elegant husband. 
 
And while we watched, she ate;
Frosted Flakes, her first meal of the day—
eating after noon, she believed, was less fattening.
And when you came on the air, leaning against a wall,
or a streetlight, to smoke a long cigarette
because your knees didn’t work after the war—
your wife, it was said, became inured to the sound of you
falling down the stairs at night

did you ask us to believe in these other worlds
with the surety of your narratives,
or did your presence
merely make them possible? 
In the calculus of the design of Heather,
you were mitosis and meiosis;
my very cells bred to learn the universe
as a place where things turned on their heads
were often facing just the right direction.
The earth could move closer to the sun and find us desperate and burning in a sixth-floor walkup.
Or the earth could move closer to Pluto and leave us freezing in a well of darkness.
Or the dead and disappeared could ring you through a powerline downed in the cemetery
or the mannequins in the store really lived on the ninth floor with the thimbles
or even Shatner could lose his mind on a wintery continental flight
and shouted-at children could escape through a hole in their Hollywood pool
and maybe if you could just climb one hundred yards over the rim
you would see one hundred years from now
 
where nuclear war was an annihilation
we had barely begun to imagine—
Witness Henry Bemis, from the fraternity of dreamers,
a bookish little man
 you began, speaking of the one literate man
at the bank who only wants to read Copperfield in peace,
tricked by the terrible irony of God and greed
to find his glasses broken in the end-vault of the world;
my first exposure to utter fuckery.

Even in the weeds of Dachau,
years after the war, in the episode
I could not watch but watched each time it aired—
(maybe you’ll sleep better at night knowing
that sometimes justice can be served)
, my mother said,
as though in fact you, Mr. Serling, could make it so—
 
Mr. Schmidt, recently arrived in a small Bavarian village
a picturesque, delightful little spot onetime known for its scenery
but more recently related to other events
having to do with the less positive pursuits of man:
human slaughter, torture, misery and anguish.
Some seventeen years ago, his name was Gunther Lutze,
a black-uniformed strutting animal
whose function in life was to give pain—
and like his colleagues of the time he shared the one affliction
most common amongst that breed known as Nazis:

he walked the Earth without a heart.
And now former S.S. Captain Lutze will revisit his old haunts,
satisfied perhaps that all that is awaiting him
in the ruins on the hill is an element of nostalgia.
 
What my mother meant, as a lullaby,
in lieu of reading me the Eichmann trials at bedtime
was that I must allow for the possibility
that the bodies of the monsters in men
could live to be tried and tortured
by a room full of ghosts.
From you, the sheer evils of conformity.
From you, that people are alike from Topeka to Mars.
From you, that that hate is not a figmentary departure
from sofa to screen, but a contagion
you find most often in the mirror.
 
The year before you died, I was four,
and you found my red sweater on the floor at our synagogue
--you slipped it on my small arms and patted me
on the shoulders. This is how I too began to dress
just before you appeared on the screen,

so you could see that I was a cute improbable in training,
an expectation for the unexpected,
a dreamer for whom the magic of the world was still waiting. 
For without you, would I need to depart daily
into the strange?  Without you,

isn’t it possible I would love my mother
just a little less?  How else would I have learned
to adore the grace of a smart man
who knew that the impossible was as near to us
as truth? How do we know, after all,

no matter what side of the screen we are on
that death is not just around the corner
waiting for us—as a train stop somewhere
between July 1888 and heaven, a place
where the sweetest bits we imagine of the past
lie just beyond the tracks, waiting? 
Or that death may very well be
the tender hand of Robert Redford
knocking at the door just now?
For here he is, in the coldest morning of winter,
handsomely bedecked in an angel’s coat,
gesturing me to come with him,
asking me to gently take his hand—
yes, he says, come—and you beckon with him,
Mr. Serling, convincing me that it is time to leave
the condemned tenement of my all-too-possible life,
to bundle up and walk with him arm in arm
out to the street, off the screen,
and into the dusty, uncertain light.

 

Heather Altfeld

Arch Enemy Self Portrait

 

Woke up mean and envious
like someone in a Flannery O’Connor story
or the lady working the gas pump at the minimart in Weed
 
jealous of the guy in the Peugeot
perfecting his French on an Audible CD
 
of the Glinda at the ATM who clicked her nails and heels
her palm a parade of green, green cash
 
of the man in the van with his matching Baja tacos
girlwatching straight through the lunch hour. And of
 
the girl, too, so new her skin tastes like a Riesling,
her breasts two white tulips in the sweet bouquet by the chair
 
mad even at the dead, the carcai of the movie actresses
identified only by their high cheekbones
 
of the heavy damp death of the beautiful sopranos
of the long fingertips of the novelists and the surgeons
 
and even the of cleanwhistled trachea of smokers
lain bare by the worms, such fun they made
of each lively inhalation
 
envy so deep even the dead can even feel it
you think you’re the shit
you think you have it all figured out down there
just because you don’t have to hail a cab
 
from 83rd and Broadway
four o’clock on a holiday
while the heat
folds you up like a clam
 
since dawn you just wanted to go back
to the dank refuge of your apartment
climb into bed where the fan twirls above you

go back, back, back
you squirrel
you mad girl
you ingot of dread
 
you, sleep’s long lost head

you, shed a tear and post it on your thumb
look at the melancholy growing in there
sad sad little world
mirror mirror.

 

 

 

HEATHER ALTFELD's first book, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, Poetry Northwest, and others. She won the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry with Nimrod International Magazine of Poetry and Prose. She lives in Northern California and teaches in the English Department and the Honors Program at California State University, Chico and is a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

 

 

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