By Anna Doogan
Fragments of words and lives, discarded underfoot
Most of his poems end up crumpled in the street, soaked and melting in sloppy puddles. In cloudy sewer water, scribbled on old receipts, brown paper bags. Rainy day promises, drunk heart-slick prose. Electric words. Words like delicate bones folded into Argentan lace, prickles of night-blooming cactus. Words mixed with smoke and sugar cubes, scattered musings. Sharp words that sting like tattoos on tongues, like salted wounds.
Wrinkled paper bags hold his booze, whatever he can get. Remorse and grief swigged away from glass bottles. Endless sips until his body relaxes and the guilt fades. Then he writes the guilt down, folds it into scraps of ripped paper.
And who can blame him, really? He packs that guilt into two shopping carts, aluminum can-lined, creased greasy blanket. Pushes it along paved sidewalks marked with handprints and initials, littered with leaves, fresh figs dropped from trees.
He’s not that much different than the rest of the neighborhood. Carrying luggage of shame and secrets. Shadows shoved into their basements, numbed out with pills. Spilled onto therapy couches for $120 a week after work. Shame alleviated by weekend indiscretions, the art of denial, new furniture.
Langston hangs on the corner of 11th and Schuyler, near the dumpster by the Royal Crest apartments. Jagged roof of sugar maples, parking lot lingering with the sting of incense. Nag Champa. Nina Simone from someone’s window above, jasmine tea brewing. Cold rains. Portland rains. Wet prophecies, damp expositions.
I see him when I walk home most days. Hunched over on the orange milk crate at the back of the parking lot, foot tapping to an imaginary beat, shopping cart of jangled cans parked nearby.
I say, “What’s good, Langston?”
Langston has teeth that gleam under the darkest brown skin. Skin that makes me think of chestnuts and warm earth.
Langston says, “Where’s that kid of yours? We’ve got the same birthday!” He slaps his knee at this, sheer delight. His bent limbs and angles remind me of twisted intersections, crooked turns.
Langston and my son have the same birthday. He reminds me of this each time I see him. My son smiles at Langston when we pass him on our way to the store, to the damp park swings. On afternoons that smell like wet sidewalks, clean downpours. Langston croons us some Otis Redding, passes me a new wrinkled poem. Moving words. Staggering words.
“Little man! We’ve got the same birthday!”
My son nods and smiles. He already knows.
I waddled past Langston for nine months with my amplifying belly. Gifts of poems, the neighborhood news. Smooth blues from his raspy throat.
“How ya feeling? When’s that baby coming?”
The first time I took the new baby for a walk, Langston shouted congratulations across the parking lot.
“When was he born?” Langston asked.
“Thanksgiving Day!” he said, slapping his knee with his knotty brown hand. “That’s my birthday!” And he chuckled and hooted and slapped his hip.
I made my way down the street, baby swaddled against my chest. For blocks I still heard Langston marveling behind me.
“Man. Hot damn. That’s my birthday!”
Once in a while Langston has his girlfriend with him. Beet-faced and round, layers of sweaters, big black boots. She smiles at me with her glazed expression, nods a hello. Sometimes they argue and she storms off, comes back in a few hours. Or days.
Sometimes I don’t see Langston for weeks, months. Sometimes I hear the bottles clinking earlier than usual, before lunchtime. Hear that baritone rumbling, rolling throaty gravel. Slurring across the parking lot, hot liquor store breath echoing his funky blues. Those days we walk down the street the other way, stay out of his sadness.
Our neighbor gets angry one night when Langston rattles by. Shouts at Langston, “Get the fuck out of my garbage!” Waves a fist as a warning. Langston slinks away in the darkness, embarrassed. Head down, eyes fearful, shame crippling his shoulders round.
Langston doesn’t ask anyone for money. He doesn’t ask anyone for anything. He writes his poems on empty cereal boxes from recycling bins, on the newspapers he uses for blankets. Poems of regret and craving, of repentance and shame. Poems of hope and lovestruck tingling, words wrapped in amber and sage and bitters, a full moon in Pisces.
Langston watches the sky when it rains, keeps himself dry with his black plastic garbage bags, wet printed papers. Under used car ads and coupons, his scribbled prose. Slumped against his creaky cart, he stares at the sky until the clouds clear, looks for revelations in storms. Waits for his gold-flecked fortunes to come tumbling down.
“Let me give your son a dollar,” Langston says one afternoon when we pass. He holds it out.
“You keep it,” I tell him. The air smells like rain and black licorice. Coffee roasting nearby.
Langston grins with glistening teeth, adjusts his gray cap.
“I’ve got money, I don’t need it,” he says. He says it so my son won’t feel bad.
My son looks to me to decide. I nod slightly, and he takes the crumpled bill, sticks in the hip pocket of his jeans.
“Thank you,” my son says shyly.
“You’re welcome, little man. We got the same birthday. Hot damn.” He chuckles to himself.
Langston has five kids. I hear about them in sober spurts on sunny days. Wistful reminiscing, unclouded nostalgia.
“All girls. All daughters,” he laughs to me one day. “But they don’t talk to me no more.”
I don’t ask why, but I feel sad as I watch him wheel his cart slowly down the street, lift the lid of the neighbor’s trash bin.
Langston leaves his scribbled poetry on windshields, on doormats. Tucked into the knots of giant trees. Some blow away, some disintegrate in the rain. The neighbors crumple some, snatch them from their windshields and curse. Drive away early with their morning coffee, slippery rain commutes.
They miss all of his hypnotic words, poignant tapestries of language and glass.
Langston keeps writing his poems anyway, saying everything they can’t put into words. He writes their pain and weight into verses, groove funk lyrics, floating beat. Cracked hazelnut shells, candied violets and soot. Broken longings.