Scott Ruescher


Beneath the Tobin Bridge

Now I close my eyes and see my friend Regina running,
Not from her parents’ Victorian house near Franklin Park
In the Dorchester section of Boston, not from the starting line
On the track in the stadium behind the suburban high school
She attended on the METCO program—for disadvantaged
But aspiring kids from the city—and not from the bus stop
At Mass. Ave. and Tremont to the Josiah Quincy Middle School
On the border of Chinatown and the South End,
As husband Melvin used to do, racing the school bus
With his friends and closest cousins every morning—
But from one polished end of the hallway to the other
On the second floor of Longfellow Hall, where we used
To work together, at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education, on this, the fourth of January, 1990,
At the beginning of the all-too-ordinary workday,
When everything is quiet, the students all gone
On winter vacation, and the professors home in their sweaters;

Running, that is, to tell me the news that she has just heard
On the radio in her office—that they have just dredged the body
Of Charles Stuart up from the green tidal waters
Of the misnamed Mystic River, beneath the Tobin Bridge
That spans Boston Harbor from Charlestown to the North Shore,
The cover of the psychopath who blamed the murder of his wife
On some anonymous black guy blown at last, his dream
Of living with the rich blonde he worked with at the fur store
On chic-chic Newbury Street now just a nightmare,
His brother Matthew having confessed this morning
That it wasn’t, after all, some desperate black junkie
Who killed Chuck’s wife, the lovely Carol DiMaiti,
In a botched armed robbery after their weekly birthing class
At Brigham and Women’s Hospital on Huntington Ave.,
In an alley across the street on Mission Hill in Roxbury,
But Chuck himself, who hoped to get the insurance money
And run off with that goddess from horsey Dover-Sherborn—

News good enough, after years of wondering why the tide
Of racism in Boston has not yet receded, to break Regina,
Against the better judgment of her Christian education,
Into a fit of giggles that keeps her from crying
In moral indignation at how the Boston cops, believing
Every word Stuart said, contrary, apparently,
To the intuition of the nurses in the emergency room
Where they sewed up the wound Stuart had made
By shooting himself in the leg to make his story plausible,
Went right ahead and conducted that month-long investigation
For the criminal in question, bringing every black man
On Mission Hill with a record in for questioning,
Even booking on suspicion one repeat offender
Named Willie Bennett who’d been in and out of prison—

News that cracks Regina’s composure open in a carefree chuckle,
Speeding her down the hall, even while her plaid skirt
Restricts her strides, while her brown feet in black flats slap
The shiny hallway tiles, and while the matching unbuttoned lapels
Of her red cardigan sweater open to the white blouse,
Itself unbuttoned at the throat to reveal the gold cross
Against the rich brown skin, which somehow sets off
The red clip in her pressed hair, above the left brow,
And the ornery and elated smile on her broad brown face.

Maya Madonna 

I met her in Guatemala, at a storefront travel agency
In downtown Antigua, in a warren of various enterprises
Bordering the courtyard of yet another elegant
Colonial Spanish mansion recovered from the rubble
Of the18th century earthquakes—the ones that finally
Convinced the authorities to move the capital
A little to the east. I was scheduled to volunteer
In the rural schools of Caluco, El Salvador,
In exactly one week—to wipe the volcanic dust
From the ledges with a rag, to catalogue and shelve
The books we’d brought down, and to talk in textbook Spanish
To the teachers, the children, and the mothers about
The love and fringe benefits of quietly passionate reading—
And had a couple days to kill. Everyone who’d been there said
To make sure and climb that volcano south of town
To stand on the shore of those molten rivers of lava.

So I’d gone around the corner from my atmospheric posada,
Hotel de la Casa de Don Ismael, near the chicken-bus station 
And artesenía plaza, to hire a reliable guide
For a hike to the top of Pacaya, the active volcano
That, a few months later, as if fed up with the tourists
Who spill from buses to climb it in noisy groups
During national school holidays and Semana Santa,
Or disgusted by the gangsters who’ve run the country since
The end of the civil war that the Dulles brothers ran
From their offices at the State Department and the CIA
On behalf of the United Fruit Company
Way back in the 50s, would spew fire-orange gobs
Of porous rock across the Mesoamerican valley.

Una indígena bonita, in black braids and a blue huipil,
She was there at the desk of the agency that doubled—
Or tripled, actually—as a bodega and a laundry
For the second-floor youth hostel, nursing her blissful son
In the darkest corner of the room when I entered
With tentative steps in my conspicuous boots,
Letting that boy, more toddler than baby, lie on her blanketed
Lap with abandon, as with open eyes he sucked warm milk
From the puckered nipple of her round brown left breast,
Inciting in me not even the least little bit of envy, really,
Though it had been a week since I’d had that kind of comfort
And more than fifty years since I’d been at my mother’s breast,
But admiration of a purely anthropological sort.

It wasn’t with sadness in my English-inflected voice
That I asked, in the most natural Central American
Spanish I could muster—Perdón, ¿hay un autobus que
Yo pueda abordar al volcán Pacaya en hoy día?
¿Un asiento disponible que usted pueda venderme?
Excuse me, but is there a bus I can take to Pacaya today?
And an available seat that you can sell me?

As practical as her peers in the impersonal cities
Of industrialized nations, she nodded without smiling
And got busy calling all of her closest bus connections
Without engaging me in the customary banter—
Placing the call, charging my card, printing out my ticket,
And giving me directions to the bus station on the edge
Of the poorer side of town at the bottom of the hill
Without once taking her attention from her nursing,
Doing it all without flinching, switching her son
From the round brown left breast to the beautiful brown right one,
Hardly even cradling him in her soft brown arms,
Just getting the deal, the bargain, the transaction with the gringo
Done without wasting even one second of time
Till, gathering my knapsack, I rose from the chair, stole
An admiring glance at them on my way out the door, and swore,
Doing a double-take and pivoting on the floor,
That I saw in the mother and child some vague resemblance
To the archetypal mother-and-child figures
I’d seen that morning after breakfast at the museum
Of colonial archaeology in the renovated convent
Of Santo Domingo on the wealthier side of town.

Later that day, standing by the stream of orange lava
At the top of Volcán Pacaya with Sam, a Ugandan student
I’d met on the bus, and then again as we descended in darkness
On a river of black sand, and even later as Sam and I sat
With beer and quesadillas at a table in a restaurant
That, for good reason, no other tourists were at, I wondered
If seeing that mass of soft shapes and curves they formed
In that plastic chair, at the storefront tourist agency,
Was just as valuable in the long run as seeing
Those pre-Columbian clay sculptures scavenged
From the overgrown rubble at one of the many digs 
In the steamy lowland jungles of northern Guatemala.
Near the ruins of Tikal, in the state of Petén.

The Bat

Ellen was watching a thunderstorm by herself from the beach
Last summer on the offshore island in the Adriatic where
Her mother grew up—on one of the Dalmatians
Of the former Yugoslavia. A first-generation
Croatian American, she was on vacation
From teaching art in the Bronx, just as she had been
When she told me this story, on the way to a waterfall
In the woods off the Blue Ridge. And though it was her custom,
In times of celebration, to light up a spliff—
A reefer, a joint, a bone—thanks to the voices
That sleep inside of us like night-time bats in a daytime cave
Till hunger for bugs and flight scares them out at night,
She wasn’t exactly alone. Those bats were swooping around,
In a manner of speaking, and her selves were all
In what you might call a state of enhanced emotion.
It was almost as if she was directing a harmonious chorus
Of voices in a piece both peaceful and cacophonous.

“The sky had already begun to clear,” she said,
As I led the way downhill through a spread of rhododendron
In a towering stand of walnut, ash, and tulip poplar
In that hardwood glen. “It was sort of powder blue,
With streaks of white, above a layer of smeared yellow and ochre.”
She was thinking she might take her colored pencils
And sketchpad out of her knapsack and record that picture
When all of a sudden, off in the west, over the flat gray
Horizon of the ocean, in the general direction
Of the east coast of Greece, in opposition to the storm passing
Behind her to the east, she saw a double rainbow
Appear in the sky, a smaller one parallel
To the larger one above it.“ Wow—I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
Ellen said, to emphasize, as I paused to point out
Some orange fungus on a log . “I’d never seen a double
Rainbow in my life!” She thought it might be some sort of omen,
A challenge for the chorus in her head to sing ululations
For those still living or dirges for the long dead,
Or a summons to find the usual pots of gold at the end—
“But if so, where? And at both ends of both rainbows, or what?”

We were just then beginning to hear the first murmurs
Of misty splatters and splashes, of clear glassy water breaking
Into white bubbly shreds on the dark jagged rocks
At the base of the waterfall, just a hundred yards or so ahead.
And I was just then beginning to infer from what she said
That the double rainbow signified, in a way I suppose
Only a natural image can, her pride in her heritage—
The clothing, cuisine, customs, and consonant-heavy language
Of her refugee parents, her late father and his childhood
In a rustic mainland village, her mother and hers
On that Dalmatian island, and the life they made together
In New York City later, after meeting in Paris
On the run from yet another historical struggle for power.

I do not know exactly what happened after that—
Whether she noticed how the colors of the inner rainbow,
Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet,
Were mirrored in reverse and less distinct in the outer one—
Or whether she drew from her knapsack those colored pencils
And that sketchpad after all. Soon, I imagine, the rainbows
Vaporized in the blue sky and the afternoon began to wane.
Maybe Ellen knelt in the sand to pray for her father,
Or ran into the ocean with all of her clothes on
Weeping with joy for the history she trailed behind her.
All I know is that by the time she started photographing
Butterflies and wildflowers, we’d penetrated the spray
And hiss of the waterfall. And I had stopped in my tracks
On at least two separate occasions to compare myself to one
Of those bats flying around like the thoughts in her head.

Postmarked Charlottesville—Postmarked Charlotte

“If nostalgia’s really contagious, Sue, and can be transmitted
In a cross-country letter, you’ll park out front like I did,
When you’re back in Virginia for that conference or whatever,
In the fossils of ruts the mailman made leaning out the window
Of his big beige Dodge. But you won’t fill the mailbox
With those medical bills our folks never paid on time, and circulars
From the supermarket. No—you’ll circle to the stoop
Of cement blocks at the side, where Daddy used to sit
With his beer after supper, and you’ll see that the door that it rose to
Is there, in the wall it was made for, and you’ll give it a little push
And enter the foyer. On the table right before you
For looters to read, you’ll see the dubious heirloom
I should have put in my pocket to burn when I got home—the summons
To traffic court for our drunk Daddy, caught weaving the line again
In the winter of ’73—and the picture I should have kept of you,
My faraway sister, with gaps between your teeth, smiling to suppress,
In the heart you’d let our mother stuff in a permapress dress
To eradicate her frown, the difficulties of poverty,
In orange braids, plaid blouse, and brown freckles looking
Like someone they’d hire at the medical center
To solace the kin of the dying.”

Apparently, yes, nostalgia is contagious, Darlene, because
I drove out to the house during a break in that conference
On linguistics last week, there at the University
Of How to Mix a Drink, and what did I see
On entering the kitchen through that side door you opened
So well in your postcard that it squeaked like a simile,
But the sordid things you neglected to mention—
Beer cans crushed in the corner, scattered in the pantry, piled
On the counter, the toaster oven full of a mouse’s messy nest,
The sink to the brim in porcupine droppings, the fridge
Tipped on its side. I’m impressed that you could ignore these things
In your search for tokens of poetic significance.
And frankly, Darlene, it made me so sick with shame
That I headed for the parlor with my hands to my face,
Only to see, between my fingers, when I dared to open my eyes,
The pathetic sticks of store-bought furniture
We left behind in the corners when Daddy took sick with cirrhosis for good
And Mama took initiative to move us into Clifton Forge
To live above that dingy Greyhound, taxi, and Amtrak office
Run by Mr. Wood, the high school science teacher fired
For the accidental poisoning, in that furnished room he let
To engineers, ordinarily, and C&O brakemen before
First the quality anthracite from the deep mines that burns
With relatively little soot and then even the bituminous coal
From the strip mines that causes the acid rain quit rolling
Through that Appalachian hamlet that’s been bombed out of its mind
On belts of booze and Bible since petroleum’s arrival.”

“It sounds like you think of nostalgia as more of a malady
Than I do, Sue—but I guess I invited the comparison
By suggesting that it’s contagious, a figure of speech
That must have come from the work I’ve done in Charlotte
As a doctor in a hospital for all these years, nursing
The afflicted and comforting the dying. Still, if it’s true
That nostalgia is a sickness, then is it a raging viral flu
That blinds us to the unpleasant particulars of the past,
A seemingly incidental illness that actually indicates
A fatal disease, or an acquired immune deficiency syndrome
That leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of other things?
I don’t like to think of it as some sort of personal problem—
Because doesn’t it also have the power to relieve
Its own symptoms, sort of like snake venom?
At least that’s what I thought when I stepped through a doorway
That no longer had a door and found the hard evidence,
In our parents’ shared bedroom, of our mother’s strenuous effort
To hang onto pride. Dogeared issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal
Folded open to articles on dysfunctional husbands.
(Recipes circled. Pages torn out.) The floral summer housedresses
Nearly eaten off their hangers by moths. A few used tubes
Of dime-store lipstick—one, she always said, for every shade of red
He ever made her see by. And, mixed in with her stuff
Like the only spice she ever used—salt—the relics of our father’s try, too.
The cowboy hat with the snakeskin band. The brittle sheet music
To Volume Three of Ernest Tubb’s Sensational Successes.
And some chicken-scratched verses in his own sappy hand,
With lyrics declaiming his love for the land.”

I’m sorry I sounded so cynical after your sentimental letter,
Darlene, and I’m glad that stuff was still there when I arrived,
And not yet excavated like an archaeological ruin
For permanent display in some slick college-town’s Indigenous Appalachian
Hillybilly Museum, our living room on view behind velvet ropes
On loan from the Smithsonian,… Though it’s a shame we had to leave 
Even that much stuff behind, when the tide of Daddy’s life receded
For possums, mice, porcupines, coons, and ‘them damn varmints’
The neighbor kids to find, it wouldn’t have been enough to return
With nothing vivid to remember it by. And I admit
That before I left I did indeed lean, literally as well
As figuratively, against the front of the house in a wicker chair
Of hornbeam bark that I’d had to right from the lumber debris
That used to frame the screened-in porch from which we could see,
Hot afternoons, the field of clover across the road,
The sudden slope of tulip poplars rising to the ridges
Of limestone above it, and the sun swinging low in the sultry southern sky
As though from the same fatigue we alleviated with yodels
That echoed down the holler, when we were still able to tell
Which cacophonous bug was which, the cricket, cicada, katydid,
And locust that we could easily classify and mimic
By tone, pitch, and duration.”

“Didn’t you once teach me that poetry was emotion
Recollected in tranquility, Sue? That’s what would make an hour
Of humiliation and shame like the one you endured
Worth all the trouble. If you ever get the urge to return again
To the house by the tinkling creek that we all used
To pee near, it’s true, through one of those two
Irregular holes that our handy father sawed in the seat of a bench,
In the outhouse outside of the bedroom he shared
With our poor mother, his ‘quenched wench’,
Who never must have known, or been willing to imagine,
Life on planet earth with an indoor bathroom
Or surely as soon as she had heard of one
We would have moved to town and never would have waited
For him to get so sick from all those cans of beer he’d guzzled
And tossed into a corner of the cold garage—well, I just hope
That you have the emotional distance and strength of character
To stand by the wash basin before the mirror in the kitchen
Which, when drunk, Daddy used to comb his thick red hair in.”

“That mirror wasn’t cracked when we moved out, Darlene,
But it was cracked when I went back—another symbol
To add to our collection. I looked into it for the longest time
Before I jumped back into the rental car and scooted along
To Charlottesville for the final day of seminars,
Studying, with a refreshing sense of aesthetic objectivity,
Each fragment of my image rather than the whole face—
The left corner of my mouth on the same shard
As a wedge of my chin, my left eyebrow
Without my left eye, my right nostril and the corner
Of my right upper lip. I knew that any of those pieces
Of my image could be me, but that the cracks themselves
Could qualify as well—orange seams of rusted metal.
I thought it must have cracked itself when we packed up,
Knowing we’d never return, and certain that no one else
In the whole wide world, not even Daddy’s everlovin’ daughters,
Would ever be able to love it just for its mind.”

Copyright © 2013 Scott Ruescher

Scott Ruescher has published poems in recent issues of the Harvard Educational Review and the Short North Gazette. A complement to "Beneath the Tobin Bridge" (concerning Regina's husband, Melvin) appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Evening Street Review--"At Mass. Ave. and Tremont Street in 1976." Sidewalk Tectonics, his 2009 chapbook from Pudding House Publications, takes the reader on a road-trip from Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, to the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in Memphis.