Sunday, September 11, 2011

On September 11th, a Poem by Ai


My name is Shirley Herlihy,
but to the lowlifes on my beat,
I am Officer Girlie.
They do not mean to diss me.
It is a sign of respect
that I let them think is ok with me, and it is,
when I am trying to do my community policing.
After my brother disappeared
at the World Trade Center,
the word went out.
The lowlifes even gave me a bouquet of flowers
I could not accept.
They came from the Korean store
before somebody tossed a Molotov cocktail
through the front door
in retaliation for a “situation”
that involved the girlfriend of a drug dealer
shoplifting disposable diapers and Tampax.
The fact is I appreciated the thought
if not the deed.
I mean the flowers were at least a sign
I had not become a cop
turning a blind eye on the misery of the street.
I was known as someone who was tough,
but fair in meting out justice.
God knows it’s hard to toe the line
every single time a perp messes up, but I tried.
If somebody’s mother needed a ride
to a bail hearing,
my transportation specialist,
Bobby J, the gypsy cab guy would oblige.
I’d say thanks by slipping him
tickets to a ball game, a movie
or some lame excuse for entertainment.
I kept the wheels turning,
so I didn’t fall under them.
I only had to use my gun once in two years
against a sonofabitch
who murdered his uncle
and hid his body in a dumpster.
Original, huh?
Stanko, the wino, found him on his garbage rounds.
We cornered the asshole in an alley
behind that shooting gallery
in the building that’s now been gentrified
and is home to a decorater, six cats
and stacks of old cool jazz albums.
Anyway, the asshole said he had nothing to lose
fired and missed, fired again
and clipped me in the shins,
but I got him as I went down.
He died, but the paramedics revived him
and now he’s in prison.
He’s born again and keeps claiming Christ has risen,
as if nobody heard the news.
Once in a while, he calls me to apologize
and proselytize. I let him last time,
even as I sat, holding the telephone,
wishing my brother would come back.
I keep telling myself he’s gone forever,
but it’s so hard to accept.
He was always rescuing things
when we were kids – injured cats, birds,
even a German shepherd
who had been known to bite without provocation.
I used to tease him by singing,
“Patrick Kevin’s going to Heaven.”
I wonder if he made it, or if he’s suspended between the life
that didn’t mean much to him
and the death that means everything to me?
He was such a good boy.
He would have been a better man, if only…
After our parents died
when I was fifteen going on twenty-five
and he was twelve, we raised ourselves.
No one else had the time.
It’s a busy world out there
the addicts tell me and I believe them
because I know.
I bet they’re lining up at Smitty’s
crack house right now to score.
I should be there to arrest someone,
but I’ve turned in my badge and gun
and come downtown to search this crater
for some sign of Pat,
even if it’s only a feeling
that he’s still around in spirit at least,
if not in body.
There’re just a few of us
who won’t give up.
With our shovels, picks and garden tools
we dig among the hunks of steel,
the concrete and remnants of people
who went to work one day
and vanished into our memories.
I dread finding him and dread I won’t
as I choke from the fumes less poisonous
than the hope that keeps me awake at night,
but I can’t give up.
He’d do the same for me.
Patrick Kevin Herlihy, I repeat under my breath
as I uncover another credit card
and a wallet with something that looks
suspiciously like blackened flesh fused to it.
I turn them in and return to digging
until faint from the effort and fumes, I collapse.
Two other searchers take me by each arm
and help me to a chair,
but I don’t stay there long.
After a candy bar and a glass of water,
I’m back at my task.
On the job, I never questioned what I was.
I had my role to play
in the day to day give
and mostly take of the criminals
who inhabited my world,
but this sixty acres is a city of ghosts
and I don’t know where I stand with them.
When I arrived this morning,
nothing greeted me but the wind
and a grackle making a din
as it pecked and scratched
at flat, charred patches of ground.
Maybe it’s a good sign
that the birds have returned,
a sign of rebirth. But whose? I wonder,
as I stare at my bruised hands.
Last year, I solved the robbery
of a palm reader.
As a lark, I let her read my lines.
She said, “In the future,
you’ll find the one you lost,
but it will cost you.”
Now as I stand above a hole seventy feet deep,
looking down, I don’t see Pat.
When I call his name,
my voice is swallowed up by the roar of machines.
At first, that sound signified the possibility
of finding him
and made my heard beat faster,
but now it’s just the white noise
I hear in my nightmares
that always begins at the scene of a shooting
that occurred during a domestic disturbance
between a man and a woman in Queens
that left two teens bereft of a mother and father
and made them cling to one another much too tightly,
so that now the one left behind is frightened
by her utter loneliness
and drinks Irish whiskey at the pub
where her brother, Pat, used to hold up the bar,
promising the patrons he was going to quit drinking
one of these days
and to assorted laughter
call for another round of drinks,
knowing his sister would never let him
sink as low as he wanted to go.
He’d seen the fight. I hadn’t
but I was haunted too
although I tried not to show it,
especially to him.
That day when I got home
from basketball practice,
I found Pat cowering under the stairway
as I had so many times before
when our parents fought,
but this time, I knew something was different.
He wasn’t crying for a change.
“Are Mom and Dad fighting again?” I asked.
“They were,” he said, without a trace of emotion,
then he told me Dad had come into his room,
hugged him and said goodbye.
That’s when I knew something terrible had happened.
All the years since, I’d nursed him
through the rough times, the blue funks
and the highs that were too much
and always ended in a rush
of promises to stop drinking.
He worked construction, he’d say,
I wouldn’t catch him falling off some scaffolding
high above Manhattan,
even drunk he could maintain his balance.
The truth was he was often unemployed,
but I supported him.
I’d long since moved into our parents’ room,
but he stayed in his
across the hall from where they’d died,
surrounded by all his trophies from high school, comics
and posters taped and retaped to the walls.
The week before the attack,
he’d told me he was going back to work.
He’d stopped drinking for good
and I believed him, as I looked deeply into his eyes,
and saw a boy who having barely escaped
the inferno of family violence
would still finally perish in fire’s cold embrace.

Ai (October 21, 1947 – March 20, 2010)

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