Philip Levine


My aunt Yetta sleeps, her mouth hanging open, her eyes
buried under a swirl of dark hair. When I rise
from bed I find her clothes scattered across
the flowered carpet. It’s Sunday, a boy’s voice
calls to me from the yard below, the voice of Harold Lux
impatient for play, urging me out into the city
we think is ours. From up here the elms glisten
in last night’s rain, the still pools on the pavement
give back a cloudless sky going gray. A single car
starts up next door, dies, starts again. The toolmaker 
leaves for work shaking his head as though his hair
were a mop of fire. In her wool bathrobe his wife
stands on the lawn in cotton socks, one hand clutching
a hankie, the other waving at the empty street.
Then what? November darkness and the cold wind,
the first snow bowing the bare branches; that wind
dies into streams of melting ice racing toward the river. 
Black walnut, elm, great spreading copper beech,
maple greening into leaf, the bare lots flowering,
morning after morning a perfect sky until I think
I see heaven waiting at the end of the block. I turn
back to aunt Yetta. The clock says more than heaven.
I have searched through cartons of old pictures
for what remained of that day, for even the moment
after the street went quiet. I have gone for years
with one hand held out before me as a token
of my blindness. Smeared by a thumb print, Yetta
broods in bright sunlight off to one side while
the others lean forward, ignorant and laughing,
into a future that is fixed. The lake behind them
changed its name. Today it’s no more than a pond
I walk around each autumn looking for messages
among the fallen acorns and the beer cans
left by teenagers. Another engine fires, the air
rings with each precise explosion, and each image
vanishes into photography. When the children called 
from the back seat, “Are we there yet? Are we there?”
what could we answer? We said the little we knew:

“We’re still here.” If you asked if Harold stands now
out in the decaying yard, faithful to the end,
breathing a name into the October air, what 
could I do but shake my head and go dumb? Perhaps
it’s enough to say what I can. The toolmaker
wore his only suit, the light blue one, for days
after his wife ran off. I could say more. I could 
say that one time I passed close he reached a dry hand
around the back of my neck, pulled me to him,
leaned down and laid his silent head on my chest.
Let’s say we’re writing this together. Let’s say I turn
to you now with a question about the wife, how her feet
—slipperless—darkened on the morning grass, how she
came back years later in a cab to search the house
and did not know her own name. The clock is moving
its hands across the face of heaven. Aunt Yetta stops
between one breath and another. I gather her clothes
into a bundle smelling of talcum and cigarette smoke,
and place it at the foot of her bed. I did that then,
I would do it now, I would do it again tomorrow
if heaven would only look. I would lower the shades
to let the room blossom in darkness, to let Yetta
sleep on long past noon and even into the darkness
of the next day and the next and the next
while a name hangs in the brilliant morning air.