Jeff Alifer

What We Take Home from McCormick Hotel Café

A switchman off shift, I take my eggs greasy,
my steak rare. That ancient mechanic two
booths down — black coffee in a fist
that shakes from a life of torqueing wrenches,
swears he should have landed a director’s
gig at our railyard in Galesburg, but lost out
when MIT mislaid his engineering degree.

His stories burn the ears of waitresses and barmaids
in Billings, his eyes growing wide with tales
of snags and hitches he could’ve resolved
or jerry-rigged, engineering the metrics
at regional headquarters to make the eyes
of company execs water, if only they’d let him.

But he does what he does, and mostly well.
And he’s not going anywhere, tolerated
like a man a woman loves for the wrong
reasons. And as I rise to pay my bill, a woman
pale as charity sidles down beside him, rubs
the cold from her hands. She forgives his yarns
of a should’ve-been-life — as we do, knowing
how bearings and gears are clamped in the folds
of his fists, tightened hard to run the world.

 

Madrigal for a Baltimore Row House

Summer of ’79, I worked security
at the Willie Carter Center—a kind
of walk-in nuthouse downtown, my wife
an insurance secretary in a tired brick
building along the inner harbor. Our salaries
enough to make it on hot hogs and macaroni,
and roach motels set everywhere along
the desiccate walls of our first-floor flat.

We paid our ancient widowed landlady
on time, heard her the first of each month
demand rent from the simpleton woman
who lived in the apartment above us.
She somehow made the stairwell reek
of cat piss and borsht. Her son with one
good eye and a bad guitar—a kid who yelled
at his mother for burning supper
and wearing Elvis buttons. Another woman,
a couple of doors down, owned a Rottweiler
she’d walk each morning with something
like a whip she held in her armpit.

She didn’t like our landlady—tried to sue her
once for a million bucks; her lawyer
told the judge she had no such funds,
and never would. I don’t remember
what the fight was over, but the dog lady
told me once that if someone ever
broke into her house, she’d shoot them
dead, then drag them into her bedroom
to be sure her killing proved legal.

When we finally packed to leave for good,
the kid with the bad eye, who’d never said
a thing to us before, just gave us a broad, gap-
toothed smile, said he knew we’d escape somehow.

 


 

Jeffrey Alfier won the 2014 Kithara Book Prize for his poetry collection, Idyll for a Vanishing River. He is also author of The Wolf Yearling, The Storm Petrel and The Red Stag at Carrbridge (forthcoming). His work has appeared recently in Southern Poetry Review, Hiram Poetry Review and Poetry Ireland Review.