Rita Dove

The Satisfaction Coal Company

What to do with a day. 
Leaf through Jet. Watch T.V. 
Freezing on the porch 
but he goes anyhow, snow too high 
for a walk, the ice treacherous. 
Inside, the gas heater takes care of itself; 
he doesn’t even notice being warm. 
Everyone says he looks great. 
Across the street a drunk stands smiling 
at something carved in a tree. 
The new neighbor with the floating hips 
scoots out to get the mail 
and waves once, brightly, 
storm door clipping her heel on the way in. 

Twice a week he had taken the bus down Glendale hill 
to the corner of Market. Slipped through 
the alley by the canal and let himself in. 
Started to sweep 
with terrible care, like a woman 
brushing shine into her hair, 
same motion, same lullaby. 
No curtains—the cop on the beat 
stopped outside once in the hour 
to swing his billy club and glare. 

It was better on Saturdays 
when the children came along: 
he mopped while they emptied 
ashtrays, clang of glass on metal 
then a dry scutter. Next they counted 
nailheads studding the leather cushions. 
Thirty-four! they shouted, 
that was the year and 
they found it mighty amusing. 

But during the week he noticed more— 
lights when they gushed or dimmed 
at the Portage Hotel, the 10:32 
picking up speed past the B & O switchyard, 
floorboards trembling and the explosive 
kachook kachook kachook kachook 
and the oiled rails ticking underneath. 

They were poor then but everyone had been poor. 
He hadn’t minded the sweeping, 
just the thought of it—like now 
when people ask him what he’s thinking 
and he says I’m listening. 

Those nights walking home alone, 
the bucket of coal scraps banging his knee, 
he’d hear a roaring furnace 
with its dry, familiar heat. Now the nights 
take care of themselves—as for the days, 
there is the canary’s sweet curdled song, 
the wino smiling through his dribble. 
Past the hill, past the gorge 
choked with wild sumac in summer, 
the corner has been upgraded. 
Still, he’d like to go down there someday 
to stand for a while, and get warm.