A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door.
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I’m going to quit smoking
I’m driving north along the river
to the Quick Stop
to get my last pack of cigarettes.
The surface of the water
looks like a king’s highway
strewn with yellow petals
and the vegetation is lush
from a month of rain
and the sun feels the way
it might feel to someone who’s been
held for years in a stone dungeon.
I’m going to quit smoking
because I want to live;
I want to feel that sun again and again;
I want to take deep breaths,
and I don’t want to hack up brown phlegm.
I’m quitting because I’ve begun to admire my body
for the many things it does for me:
the wheelbarrows of dirt it moves,
the rocks it carries,
the plants it pulls up and puts down.
And I admire it for the mind it carries atop it,
though the mind has so often treated the body
like a poor relation.
Like a faithful friend, the body went on
hoping the mind would come to its senses.
And it did, finally.
And, lo and behold, there was still a body,
a strong body there to do the work of life.
And so I discovered God was not in my mind,
but had been hidden in my body all along.
God was in the cells that healed themselves,
and in the neurons and in the muscles,
the heart, especially the heart,
that beat and beat though not instructed to do so,
that beats now without prayers or offerings,
through every sin and misgiving.
Because I was driving, I could not fall
on my knees in front of my body,
but I could turn the car around
and go home.
And there is more.
As I was driving home
I saw a child’s black rubber boot
lying on its side
in the road.
And instead of just letting it be what it was,
I suddenly imagined the road full of people
carrying their belongings on their backs,
hurrying, hurrying, their children struggling to keep up,
and one sickly boy finally falling down
and wailing that he couldn’t go on.
And I saw his father throw down his pack
and snatch his son up
though he knew this might mean his own death,
because leaving his son
meant another kind of death,
and as he held him one boot worked loose
because it was too big anyway,
and it dropped to the road
and no one noticed, or no one wanted one boot
as they surged on toward some mythical border
where they’d be safe.
And I knew I was an antenna
picking up some bit of bad news
from across the globe
and whether it was good or bad
I had to be there for it.
So when I thought of turning around again
to get the cigarettes — because
what was one more day
of inhaling that shit into my lungs? —
I thought of that little boot
and how one day is forever sometimes.
And I remember that boot now
every time I want to smoke,
and every time
it breaks my heart,
the heart that beats on and on
even when I think it’s broken.