capital voices 5-19-05
The downtown park bench is well located for cigar smokers, just far enough off the ordinary path to be away from the condescending stares of nonsmokers.
I watched him approach. Each slow and delicate step seemed thought out in advance. Even at a distance, I could tell he’d targeted my spot. He was well dressed, dapper. A fine fedora perched rakishly atop a mane of long white hair. A cape, or smock, or small quilt, was folded square and neat across his left forearm.
“Mind I join ya?” he asked as he pulled a cigar from the pocket of his tailored shirt.
Without waiting for an answer, he added, “I like my cigars like I like my whiskey and my women — cheap!”
His parts didn’t match; his hands were muscled thick, like your father’s hands when you were 5. His eyes shone polished-gemstone-bright; his voice was strong, a young man’s voice.
All the rest of all of him was old, the oldest man I’d ever seen. When he laughed, as he did after his “cheap joke,” his deeply wrinkled face lifted high up into a soaring full-teeth smile; then, as the smile melted away, his face settled back down like a warm blanket to comfort slumping shoulders.
Jimmy “Buck” Donavan was traveling with a Chicago seniors’ group to see the Lincoln sites and looking for a retirement home that’d let him keep his dog. His conversation did not much abide common convention; it skipped from topic to topic, stopping only randomly for breath, or paragraph, or response.
“Be easier if the dog weren’t so set in his ways; from time to time, on a moonless night, he’s still more wild than tame.
“Can’t beat Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, as far as we’re concerned. Dog and I used to work the trees. I was a topper; used to dance up the trees to top ’em out; no more, lucky to see the top of a tree nowadays, much less dance one. Dog watched to see all was right. Can’t work trees for years, we work words now.
“Gotta work something or you’ll fade out, dissipate! We’re poets now, but gotta rhyme and have cadence to it — that’s the hard part; don’t rhyme, don’t have cadence, then it’s not poetry. That’s our final thoughts on the matter.
“Lincoln would have been have been a hell of a poet were he so inclined. Hard to decide what to take to a one-room retirement joint when you have near a hundred years of lifetime stored up. That’s our final thoughts on the matter. Some folks disbelieve in the dog; dog don’t cotton much to cities, he likes the forest best. You agree?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said.
In the short time we shared, he spoke a hundred more slapdash thoughts I couldn’t agree more with — or less with, for that matter.
The senior tour passed by a half-hour later and gathered him back into its emasculating fold. A chaperone apologized: “Thinks he’s a poet; sometimes with a dog, sometimes not — varies day to day.”
“Your address?” Donavan asked as he left. I told him; he wrote it down.
The letter arrived last week, two poems, handwritten in two very different hands and in two slightly different styles. The return address read only “Buck.”
He was ninety-nine years, to the calendar
when he gathered his goods,
and gave ’em away
He kept a shirt, a hat, and a fine new smock
with a belt in the back
they could use as a lock
At night, in the sky, where they cannot see
he sings out his song
to the top of a tree
He tells stories, and poems, that feature his
and dances with stars
in a mystical fog
A Howling wolf in silver solo.
Free, and wild . . . this spirit lobo.
remember days both good, and bad.
and change the times found colored rue.
make them green, and grow . . . and you.
To Fetch closed minds in tainted hues.
To Catch the shades in blacks . . . and blues
Survive inside grey one-room lair.
He can you know . . . and flourish there.
imagine deep, and bloom, and dream
impress them firm upon the brain
those wondrous colors in arcane.
To leave a mark.
I couldn’t agree more.