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He peered into the bar mirror over the bottles
of gin and whiskey. Yes, he thought, he really
did have a long face. Why hadn’t he noticed it
before? But looking out of his moony eyes,
he rarely wondered how others saw him, since,
apart from mirrors, he never saw himself.
Sure he was tall, no surprise there. Walking
along city sidewalks, he felt that was why people
slid to a stop when they saw him. But perhaps
it was his face that upset them, its odd expanse;
tombstone teeth, satchel mouth, black rubber lips.
People gawked and, glancing back, he saw
they were gawking still. None of this was new.
Yet each occasion once more fueled his sense
of isolation, which had begun at birth and came
from being an only child. He had no memory
of his father. His mother ran off after a few weeks
and he’d been raised by strangers. Stubbornly,
he worked to be strong, get on with the business
of living, to focus his thoughts on the road ahead.
But then a cruel wisecrack or brutal snicker
would tumble him back to the beginning again,
the self-doubt and crushing solitude. Did it really
matter if he had a long face? But it wasn’t just that,
it was his whole cluster of body parts. Alone they
might have been fine, even the boxy feet. Then,
when all joined into the oneness that was him,
it changed. Not only did people stare, they looked
offended; as if his very presence upset their pride
and sense of self-worth; as if they were saying, How
can it be good fortune for us to walk here, if you
walk here as well; as if to see him and smell him
lessened them as human beings. Soon they’d brood
about their failings: broken marriages, runaway kids.
Was this his only power, to make others feel lesser?
How many of these downcast do we see on the street
whose insides are marked by scars, who show off
their apparent good cheer and lack of concern only
to conceal their fears? And even if we saw them
what could we do? The bartender coughed to get
his attention, half-grinning, half-appalled.
Why shouldn’t he stay? He had no one to visit,
no place to go; he had only these long afternoons
in anonymous bars with the televisions turned low.
Give me a Jack Daniels, he said, and put it in a bowl.
Stephen Dobyns has published fourteen books of poems, twenty-three novels, a book of short stories, and two books of essays on poetry. His most recent book of poems The Day’s Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech was published by BOA Editions Ltd. in 2016. His most recent novel is Saratoga Payback published in March 2017 by Blue Rider Press. Two of Dobyns novels and two short stories have been made into films. His book of poems Black Dog, Red Dog was made into a feature length film in 2015 by James Franco. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and numerous prizes for his poetry and fiction. Dobyns teaches in the MFA Program of Warren Wilson College, and in the past at Sarah Lawrence College, Emerson College, Syracuse University, Boston University, University of Iowa and half a dozen other colleges and universities. He was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1941. He lives in Westerly, RI.
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