A man is gunned down in a narrow back alley in Vienna, and his spirit
is dispatched at once to the place such spirits go:
a waiting room with benches that stretch to infinity. After the usual delays,
he’s offered a family: Canadian,
this time around, with a chubby mother who likes to laugh, a bearded dad
who plays bagpipes on weekends,
a big sister who will major in international relations when she’s old enough.
He agrees, and soon he’s in the delivery room,
hovering over the shoulder of one of the nurses, watching himself be born.
When the cord is cut, he expects to be
drawn inside with a rush of forgetfulness, but all he feels is the gentle tug
of otherworld nostalgia for flesh and bone.
He learns that coming back doesn’t happen all at once: it’s a gradual process,
a relic of the days when most kids
died young – an easy return if something went wrong. He begins to spend
more time in his new home, watches with amusement
the first word, the first step. Soon the tie grows stronger: he begins to let go
of who he once was. Then he is four,
and one night when his sister has tucked him in and is telling him a story,
he tells her one — KGB versus CIA;
Prague, Zagreb, Belgrade, Budapest; moles, safe houses, microfilm chips;
terminations with extreme prejudice.
Night after night, his story continues, and she is astonished at his knowledge,
his ability to sustain a taut,
compelling narrative. One night, in the middle of his tale, he begins to cry:
“It’s going away!” he moans. “I can’t remember any more!”
She dries his eyes, turns out the light: soon he falls asleep, suspended
between two of his lives, two sets of secrets.
Philip St. Clair is the author of six collections of poetry. His work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Black Warrior Review, Gettysburg Review, Harper’s, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. Awards include the Bullis Prize from Poetry Northwest and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council. He has taught at Kent State University, Bowling Green State University, and Southern Illinois University, and is currently Professor Emeritus at Ashland Community and Technical College. He lives with his wife Christina in Ashland, Kentucky.