At the Library of the Vatican
There Are Small Spaces Between All The Books
There’s a whole host of reasons I don’t smoke
But I love hanging around folks who do
Because the way it pours from their nostrils
And the corners of their contorted mouths
When they’re trying to be all polite and blow
The haze in some other direction
Sometimes makes me think of Immanuel.
Back when I was bumming around with him
And Matty and Jim we’d sometimes set up
On the curb outside that run-up tit club
With the Keno machines down on Last Chance
And guilt the long-haulers out of their coins
By striking up with them about their wives
Or asking to see pictures of their kids.
With any luck we’d pocket a few bucks
By the time the high-country night charged up
‘Cause the gas stop on Prospect stocked Kreteks
And though their hot exhaust made our lungs scream
It paired well enough with the prairie wind
Plus Petey said we looked like real beats
And for the most part that sounded all good.
Petey only ran with us now and then
But when he came around we’d burn burn burn
Like roman candles do against the dark
And we’d make like road-shoulder semaphores
With cinders in our beards or on our chests
And when high-beams licked our necks we’d pop thumbs
Or duck from troopers in the borrow pit.
Around one or two when the bars shook dry
The Catholic kids had to find a new spot
To get their kicks and bank up confessions
So that dark stretch of highway out to York
Would flare up every few minutes or so
(The last light in town cut the cavalcade)
And most nights some trashed Cat would let us hitch.
This joint in York cut rotgut with java
And hawked the stuff until the sun shone
In pure streaks through the beetle-bit lodgepoles
On the hillcrest above the old junction
Where York Road turns from asphalt back to dust
And crosses the derelict timber route
Immanuel said he walked in his dream.
That’s the whole reason we first hitched out there;
Manny nodded off one time on the deck
At his step-dad’s place in Castro County
So we bowled a cherry bomb toward him
And when he settled down he got all raw
And said we jerked him out of some vision
He was having about this timber road.
He said he’d never been to Montana
But we had to go and not stop going
Until we got there and tracked this place down
‘Cause some dead sourdough cut it just for him
And burmed the sides up high with mine tailings
So he could walk it under a new moon
And it would just pinball him up the ridge.
We were already feeling top heavy
And sort of off-kilter and tilting some
Like our heads had been on the road for weeks
While our shoes gathered dust in Nazareth
So when Manny declined to let up on
This Big Sky deal we all agreed to go
And gave ourselves two weeks to bank some cash.
To get off clean from some MIP strike
Matty worked a deal with the PD
Where they’d hand him fifteen or twenty bucks
And send him in to snag graveyard shifters
Who were just trying to make a living
And if it worked out that the joint got fined
Sometimes the kid would get a cut of it.
Jim wrangled a ride back to Bethsaida
To go in with his brother for the keep
At some bass scramble on Okatibbee
And I tried to get in packing beef
At Caviness up off 385
But the line foreman talked automation
And said he’d toss me a few bucks to sweep.
So when dust storms kicked back up in June
And the wind carried grit that smoothed our skin
Our battered old suitcases were piled
All together on the sidewalk again
And though it took us another two weeks
To bank enough money to make Pueblo
We made up some lost time hitching at night.
Petey first fell in with us in Cheyenne
And from then on my hair smelled like Christmas
Mixed with big-rig exhaust ‘cause that kid puffed
On those clove cigarettes like they were air
Although he swore they didn’t have him hooked;
He said he just needed to see the air
And in warm weather that’s how you do it.
By the time the shallow sodium lamps
Of Sheridan defined the horizon
And made gold flake of the dust on the dash
We’d all come around to Petey’s thinking
And even though the hot fumes made us sweat
Petey said there’s no other way out for
Errant sinners but to sweat out the sin.
Manny had a spent butt, all water-logged,
Dangling from the corner of his grin
Our first night out behind that joint in York
When the pie-eyed plaster saint who drove us
Unhitched the tailgate and we spilled out
Onto the concrete like granary grist
Chaff-bound, fit and eager for the oxen.
From where we stood huddled by the dumpster
Between the hillside and the kitchen door
We could just make out – through the valley haze –
The faint suggestion of a spot-lit cross
Anchored to one of the cathedral spires
Across the basin at St. Helena
But the smog was too dense to see the church.
Manny said something like “Let’s get moving”
But Jim dropkicked an empty can of Cold Smoke
Onto the tin roof of the restaurant
And when it rolled off and fell at our feet
He capitalized on our attention
And resolved to wrap up the production
By making a hard push for chicken wings.
The whole time we were holed up in that bar
Manny just sat there sort of slumped over
Leaving forehead oil on the windowpane
Staring out through it at the blue junction
Where his old timber route crossed and went off
From the paved one we took to get out there
And he said it looked just like he dreamed it.
From where I sat and looking past Manny
Ghosts of the neon bar signs at our backs
Hung low amongst the moonlit pines outside
And the high-country gusts of late-August
Seemed to kick anxiously at the high side
Of each surface irregularity
On the road, tossing grit to the moonshine.
Just like in his dream the sides of the road
Were burmed up with gravel and fractured stone
Although the mounds of it weren’t quite as high
As I think we’d all been imagining
And I can’t speak on behalf of Manny
But I could tell that even in the moonlight
It would be a bitch to walk it at night.
When the greased-up bar-back bought us a round
Matty struck up with him for a how-to
So the kid started gouging a roadmap
Into the tabletop scum with his nail
And brushing tightly-wound coils of the stuff
On to Petey without really thinking
And Petey got worked up but then he dropped it.
By far the longest coil on Petey’s lap
Flew off the table as soon as the kid
Finished up cutting the old timber road
From the joint where we sat at the junction
Down to where it clipped the Missouri
Before winding back up between the hills
And tracking with the ridgeline to the graves.
He was making a ball out of the junk
He pried out from under his fingernail
By rolling it between his fingers
Like a kindergart'ner with a pillbug
And once it was all good and uniform
He pressed it back down on the table
And said dead pioneers get the best views.
He said for the magpies those hilltop plots,
Scattered amongst the beetle-kill lodgepoles,
Were only a half mile above the junction
But the timber road took the long way there
On account of the elevation gain
And since sometimes the long way’s all you got
We were looking at a solid three miles.
He said he hadn’t been up there in years
But he used to ride up for the sunrise
With his dad when he was first learning how
To set up his horse with a decker rig
And he said that the way the morning light
Seemed to thread itself through the deadfall pines
Was reason enough to suck it up and go.
So we did. And when the road paralleled
The river at about a mile in
We walked in the water for some relief
From blisters because we’d all worn sandals
And the road-grit we kicked up with each step
Was getting into the sores and burning
And it made the whole thing miserable.
When we topped the ridge and looked out eastward
Toward the Elkhorns some forty miles off
We could see their higher cliffs were gilded
By the wet light of miner’s gold daybreak
And over night the haze in the valley
Had settled enough to make out the church
And the college and the run-up tit club.
Manny hadn’t said much the whole way up
And now he was just pushing steady on
And when I tried to ask him what was up
He said there was nothing to talk about,
That the only thing to do now was go
And not stop going until we got there
So I just let it go and followed him.
He was quicker than the rest of us were
When it came to ducking under deadfalls
And we lost him for a minute or two
In the knot of trees and brittle needles
But not long after that I heard a creak
And a brushing sound and Manny hollered
That he found the headstones and we were close.
He yelled “The closer you get to real things,
Boys, rock and air and flame and fuel,
The more spiritual the whole world is,”
And Petey and I kept snapping branches
For the fellas behind us to track us down
And pretty soon we both smelled cinnamon
And that plus pine tar smelled just like Christmas.
When we stumbled up on Manny he was
Puffing on a Kretek, leaning on a stump
With his ass on a mat of pine needles
And he was staring up into the boughs
And sort of pushing out his bottom lip
So all the smoke he was breathing went up
And caught the highest shafts of morning light.
He was fingering an old square-cut nail
That he picked up somewhere along the way
And when he saw Petey he tossed it up
And Petey snagged it all quick and quiet
Out of respect for the dead pioneers
But as soon as the other guys showed up
He started whistling and dropped the thing.
Jim reclined against the wrought-iron fence
And creaked the half-hinged gate just to pass time
And as the light of morning broke wildly
Over the distant Elkhorns and brightened
Our lodgepoles from the high boughs down to us
We all lit up and choked on smoke and spit
And Petey grinned ‘cause he could see the air.
At the library of the Vatican
There are small spaces between all the books
But not really.