The local lake gnaws on what it’s gnawed on
for centuries. At the diner, a man

and woman refuse to talk. The coffee,
steaming and black, has to say everything

in a sad, stilted Spanish. The fat man
comes in, humming, and wants the couple to

serve as a symbol of the human heart,
how even a squalid lump of muscle

needs some time off now and then. The fat man
wants both of them, blind to any symbol,

to sip the coffee mumbling Spanish
and shiver with the change in temperature

in their bodies, then take the other’s hand
as if the heat of the foreign coffee

has reminded them both of their need for
the consolation of touch. The fat man

would say this is about the pale shoulders
of a woman he loves but hasn’t touched,

but the coffee the lame waitress brought him
curses him in what he believes to be

Portuguese, and there’s too much grease and salt
in the diner’s humid air. The lovers

mistake the thick air for the remnants of
Romanticism. The fat man has to

lay out everything in perfect order
before he can think of eating. Order,

the fat man thinks, matters. Someone, maybe
his dead mother, taught him that years ago.

The fat man’s given up on the lovers,
their coffee cold, neither speaking Spanish

of any sort. What sky slips through the blinds
picks over what the lovers have left cold

on their plates and turns the waitress’ limp
into a slow, graceful tarantella

that makes even the hips of the fat man
limber up. The lovers are out the door,

lit up with a full dose of the sore sky’s
dour light. The fat man wants it to have

no effect on how they behave. He wants
to believe that even the briefest touch

can overwhelm any sorrowful light.
Memory, his dead mother wants to say

in his ear, puts everything in order
and serves up the past with a hot side dish

or two. The coffee it serves, domestic
and black enough it has no desire

to mean anything, steams exactly how
we’ve always wanted to remember it

steaming. The past is only what it was,
nothing more. The lake’s full and still gnaws on

everything. The lovers, awash in light
that spurs on resentment, walk together,

each with an absent-minded hand touching
the other’s ass. The waitress with the limp

is off in another hour, she says
to a waitress with red hair whose gait is

perfect. Disorder, his dead mother cries
out in dismay, is everywhere. He wants

to calm her, to convince her she is wrong,
but she’s already stormed out the diner,

shouting what could be taken for curses
in Spanish or something like it, caught up,

for good or not, in a real humdinger
of an argument with the dour light.

Not even a bitter lake can edit
what the sky says. All any lake can do

is change the tone, so a scolding becomes
a friendly warning or a reminder

of what we need when even the sky has
forgotten who we are and would argue

loss should be what we drink mornings, steaming
so we have to blow across it, our lips

pursed as if to kiss all we’ve had goodbye.
The fat man would rather kiss a woman

he hasn’t made out of words, a woman
he could offer the sky as evidence

that even the most worn-out heart can learn
the word for love in a foreign language.

 

 

GEORGE LOONEY’s recent books include Hermits in Our Own Flesh: The Epistles of an Anonymous Monk, Meditations Before the Windows Fail, the book-length poem Structures the Wind Sings Through, Monks Beginning to Waltz, and A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness. His novel Report from a Place of Burning was co-winner of The Leapfrog Press Fiction Award and will be published in 2018. He is the founder of the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, editor-in-chief of the international literary journal Lake Effect, translation editor of Mid-American Review, and co-founder of the original Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.