To My Cousin Josh with Nothing
I didn’t look under the hood the way you would have.
An old Ford hardtop wedged between two trees
in a cornfield as if it was parked there before
the trees took root. The backdoor jimmied open.
The steering wheel in place, but the pedals gone.
I was walking a shortcut to the hospital
because you were dying again. You’d been dying
for so long it was hard to say from what.
Ten years ago it was liquor, which led to diabetes.
Now add cancer. Now pneumonia. The first drops
of rain nickel-and-dimed the windshield but lacked
the body to run the glass. They sat like solo climbers
bivouacked at night on a bald granite face.
I stretched out on what was left of the backseat,
the springs squealing at the pressure points
as if to complain of the various weights of me.
Meanwhile you were adding up to less and less.
Forget about muscle––your skin waxed down
to a windowpane, your limbs thickest at the joints.
And as I lay in that totaled car waiting out the storm,
all I could think about was how you waterskied
at the family cabin years ago, how you slalomed
with a natural’s ease, held the towrope one-handed,
carved walls outside the wake, threw eight-foot sprays.
And after a few days in the emergency wing
getting half your liver removed, followed by
that short stint in rehab, I remember the last time
you tried––the same old life vest so oversized
you had to switch it for a kid’s one. The easy
bruises on your shins. The towrope assuming
from your hands like a loon before you could lift
above the wake. What happened to that athlete?
That engineer? What slipped from your hands
and skidded across the lake and sank? I couldn’t sleep.
The wind picked up. Raindrops veined into each other
and pooled, sluicing down in chutes to the hood.
And honestly Josh, I wish I could say the surgery
failed, or the cancer spread, or the pneumonia found
a foothold. I wish I could tell you I never made it
to the hospital to see you. That in the end it rained all night
and bad luck struck one or the other of the trees
I was under. I wish I could believe the reasons
the preacher gave at the funeral, or the mumbles
of our mothers under the motor-drone on the drive home.
But the truth is, you lived on for years. Thinned
your six-foot-four frame to ninety-five pounds
fully dressed and wet. You didn’t lose a fight.
Nothing was after you. You moved up to the family cabin
to avoid paying rent, smoked Camels
with the curtains drawn and the television on,
though you didn’t watch it, and one day you were gone.
Reprinted from The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee. Copyright (c) 2019 by Anders Carlson-Wee. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.