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. 

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