That Summer with Charlie
The summer I needed money for college
I hit every construction office in town
and finally got my chance, a new motel
going up three miles east on the highway, be there
by eight and they’d find me something to do.
My dad bought me a pair of steel-toed boots
and the next morning drove me out to the job site.
The foreman put me with Charlie, a little guy
with the strength of a Clydesdale horse.
His grip, when we shook, was callus and grit.
He was good with power tools and hammers,
good with cement, with tampers
and edgers, bull floats and trowels,
had me sweating to keep up with him.
Charlie drove down Coteau every morning,
picked me up at the corner close to our house,
telling me stories about what it was like
to be a soldier in the war, and how much
those Dutch girls loved the Canadian guys,
Charlie with the window always open,
cigarette spraying ashes over his shirt.
Once, when laying a pad of cement
for the long line of motel rooms, it meant
overtime for some of the crew, and Charlie
told the boss that I always rode with him,
I might as well stay; thirteen hours we worked,
it would be the biggest payday of my life.
Afterwards, driving home with Charlie at dusk,
I kept dozing off in the passenger seat, Charlie
tapping my shoulder at the corner, grinning
and telling me, don’t forget, tomorrow morning
I’ll pick you up the same time as usual,
Charlie who died a dozen years ago,
and not till I read his obit in the paper
did I think of our long gone summer together,
and realize how stupid I was, the kid
who never once thought to chip in for gas.
The Town He Remembers
He pulls off the Yellowhead, finds Railway Avenue in Paynton,
no sign of McGee’s General Store where the clerks knew his name,
no sign of Joe Luke’s Cafe where Joe sliced him free cherry pie.
He swings the truck and trailer to the side of the street,
stares at the road running south. Little chance for a u-turn there.
“My grandmother’s house,” he says, “is up this way.”
His wife and kids follow him out of the truck,
along a line of pines and broken poplars
toward the last house at the end of town.
Two storeys, weathered clapboard, empty windows.
The hobby horse that he rode will be gone now,
and the Indian hammer from Cut Knife Creek.
Yes, and the wind-up bird he feared
with the beak that might seize his ear.
No trace of the barn with the deer’s head on the wall,
the dark eyes that stared and stared at his own.
He points to an upstairs window.
“I remember watching a storm from there,
the whole house starting to shake
black clouds rolling in, not even noon,
the town and prairie dark as night.”
The kids keep glancing back at the truck,
edging away. There’s not much to see.
A screen door opens across the road,
a woman steps out, hands on her hips.
We aren’t trespassing, he thinks,
but she’s calling them over. He explains
about Grandma Mondy, but she shakes her head,
says they were looking at Gus Schrank’s place,
Ida Mondy’s house was the next one south,
torn down years ago to make for a bigger field
when the price of wheat was high. He feels
disoriented, a bit foolish, but she invites them in,
offers them lemonade and cookies, asks
about his mom, his aunts, and he thinks
it’s still the town he remembers.
Where I’ve Lived Most of My Life
I’m sitting on a bench on Main Street,
wind turning the corner by City Hall,
bringing with it chocolate bar wrappers,
a crushed styrofoam cup, a torn envelope,
crumpled sheets of newspaper, scraps
of our lives tossed on the street.
People hurrying by, their eyes half-shut,
a whirlwind of dust rising around them,
I consider how long I might sit
before someone passes I’ll recognize.
I used to delight in trivia games.
What band leader once sang backup
with the Hilltoppers? Billy Vaughn.
Who left his second best bed to his wife
when he died? William Shakespeare.
Who was on base when Bobby Thomson hit
the home run that won the ‘51 pennant?
Clint Hartung and Whitey Lockman.
With the slats of the bench grown hard
on my butt, a sudden thought blows in
on a swirl of wind: Who trusts memory anyway?
Thirty years I taught in this town.
I knew the name of every girl, every guy
in grade twelve, every last one of them.
When they came to my class, I put them
in a seating plan, warned them I was
watching them, but not to worry,
they hadn’t sprouted warts on the nose,
I was matching names with their faces.
And where are those names today?
A woman swings out of the Pita Pit,
hair lifting over her collar. She walks
toward me, high heels rapping,
the start of a smile on her lips.
She looks like someone I may recognize,
but this is the moment the wind
hurls grit in my face. I close my eyes,
hear her footsteps fade and vanish.
Trust memory? At this moment I’m not
even sure why I’m waiting here in the wind?
What His Mother Said
Sometimes, she said, a man’s flaws
are the size of elephants.
They might be rearing, trumpeting,
he wouldn’t notice a thing.
The boy was sure she meant his father,
was just as sure she wouldn’t say it.
I think I understand you, she said,
but who knows by the time you’re grown?
Most men are a mystery to their wives,
themselves too. They don’t say what they mean.
Fact is, they seldom know it themselves.
The end of the day as long as the sun,
a pale moon already riding the sky,
the boy with his nose at the window
watching his father trudge in from the field,
his hand slapping bugs on the back of his neck.
His mother began to slice the overdone roast,
a cross-rib, he supposed, his father’s favourite.
Wealth, he remembers her telling him once,
isn’t the money you store in the bank.
The sound of the opening door. The blaze
that flared in her eyes like the candle flame
when she let him light the wick at Easter.
Coming Home at Night
He pulls into the driveway, snow in the headlights,
tracks smudging the walk, a drift over the shovel.
He turns off the lights, the ignition, and sits
where he is, hand gripping the wheel, radio silent,
a ping under the hood, metal contracting
as the engine cools. After a while he notes
how his hand hangs on the wheel, drops it
to the arm rest, later notices the cloud
of breath on the windshield, and beyond that
the house, no light at the front step, no light
in the windows. She must be in bed.
The streetlight down the block casts a pale glow
through the yard, and he can see curtains
lowered in the master bedroom windows.
When he understands that he’s shaking
with cold, he opens the car door, steps out,
picks his way through the snow and enters
the dark house. Hangs his coat in the closet,
tiptoes down the hall to the bedroom.
He opens the door, stands, listening,
her breathing like that of someone asleep.
He sheds his clothes in the dark, warm air
on his legs, the furnace exhaling below.
Clad only in shorts, he steps to his side of the bed,
slides under the covers, the bed sinking, a sigh
deep in the mattress. The quiet house.
He matches the pace of her breaths
with his own. How easy it is.
On the far side of the bed
her body curled like a fist.
Another Dark Hour
When she slips from their bed in the night
he’s sprawled half out of the covers, breathing
easily, right arm dangling over the mattress edge.
How can he sleep so soundly, she wonders.
She walks toward the kitchen, the hall floor
creaking as she passes the second bedroom.
The living room on the left is dark, not a hint
of light through the picture window sheers,
the street lamp on the corner burnt out again.
She stands for a while with the fridge door open,
the light falling around her as she stares
at the vegetable bin. Cold air pressing against her.
She considers the pitcher of water, reaches
for it and sets it on the counter top, the fridge door
open behind her, her slim figure framed
at the kitchen window, her image on glass.
She closes the door, looks out on the dark yard,
the ragged hedge that divides their garden
from the grounds of the school in the distance, a single light
burning in the lot where the teachers park their cars.
At this hour there are no children climbing the gym set,
no children kicking balls on the soccer field,
and she can hardly imagine them there in the light.
The pitcher forgotten on the counter before her,
she stares at the school, sombre and empty.
Her hands clasp her shoulders, but can’t stop
the shivers. She turns suddenly and walks
back down the hall, the hardwood creaking
at the door of the second bedroom,
the room with the bed that is empty
and will always be empty now.
Robert Currie is the author of eleven books, most recently The Days Run Away (Coteau, 2015) which was a finalist for the 2016 High Plains Book Award for Poetry. Back in the 70s he edited and published Salt, a little magazine of contemporary writing. More recently he served two terms as Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan (from 2007 to 2010). In 2009 he received the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. Email him at email@example.com
Oh, but you are a sly ( and superbly deft) poet, Mr. Currie! You lead us along with your mildness and plain-spokenness, then in every one of these poems, without a trace of melodrama or folderol, you pierce our hearts as the utterance comes to its poignant close. Bravo.
Thank you so much, Mr. Lea, for your generous feedback.
Loved the poems, Bob, and especially “Another Dark Hour”.
Thanks, Glen. That means a lot coming from Saskatchewan’s first Poet Laureate.
Robert Currie is one of that select group able to capture in words the minutiae of detail we all casually accept as reality, yet become blind to for its very ordinariness. His, is the eye and soul of the artist. As my Scottish grandmother would say, ” He has a Good Face “.
I very much appreciate your comments. Thank you.
Beautiful stuff, Bob (or Mr. Currie, rather).
It’s good to hear from you, Peter; you’re one of the best poets I ever had the privilege of teaching.