One iron-cold hour still divides night from dawn.
Mist hangs smoke-thick over the river,
a blanket to hide its endless motion.
Outside the tavern, the tide-steady pulse
of police lights throws an underwater glow
over the parking lot, the knotted school
of late drinkers shivering under clouds
of breath-smoke, drawing the small fires
of cigarettes down to their mortal flare,
restless eyes that cannot leavethe man lying covered on the cold dirt
of the parking lot. On the river’s far side,
a train whistle cleaves the night
like a phone call delivering bad news.
Last night, a car stalled on the tracks
long enough for the driver to feel
her life trapped in the endless spin
of the ignition trying to spark. Tonight,
she wakes with no one to tell about the cold
taste of metal that flooded her mouth
as the train’s bone-colored light bore
so close she felt rather than heard
the car start, letting her roll off the tracks
just ahead of the bad story she almost became.
It’s always one piece of the story
swimming upstream to join the rest.
One by one, the shivering tribe is brought
into the bar none of them has seen
fully lit before, to sip the bartender’s coffee
and give witness to whatever scraps they know.
Across the county, at the other end
of a tangle of back roads, a woman turns
in sleep, trying to inhabit
both sides of the bed in her unconscious
rehearsal for widowhood. She doesn’t hear
the train grinding into the hills,
hauling its portion of the night or hear the dull voices
swearing to God they never saw a gun. Beneath
the river’s hidden surface, fish hang motionless
in current, their bodies built for waiting.
The stories that work know how to build
the plot that fits. The bartender wipes
glasses clean, tries not to hear
the low talk spilling over his tables.
Most nights when the train throbs through,
he is driving through the valley of sleeping women,
melting ice watering his one drink of the night
as he tries to make his shift a story
that might draw his wife far enough out of sleep
that their low voices spill into touch.
Like rivers, bars have their own currents,
treacheries deep and sudden enough to erase
the dancing surface, to drown the body
slow enough to leave a wake. The fish
at the river’s floor doesn’t feel the water
ebbing past slow as time. The trains run steady as blood.
This night is already memory and aftermath
and its story rises quick as steam, to vanish
between the body in the parking lot and the woman
who waits through sleep to know how it ends.
Al Maginnes has appeared in numerous publications including The Georgia Review, Quarterly West, Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, Mid-American Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Shenandoah, Green Mountains Review, Poem, Southern Poetry Review, Texas Review, and Two Rivers Review. He has published two volumes of poetry, Taking Up Our Daily Tools (St. Andrews College Press, 1997) and The Light in Our Houses (Pleaides Press, 2000). He teaches at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, NC.