Almost believed, the alibis I tried
The last summer I lived at home, the fault
With others, evidence circumstantial
As portents of the world's imminent end.
One uncle's reversed home movies lifted
Us from water, took the food from our mouths.
The world's cameras caught the phenomena
Of the saucermen, yeti, dinosaurs
In deep lakes, and I heard the old story
Of the Paw Paw Blowtorch, able to set
His hospital bed on fire by breathing,
Sheets and blankets flaring when he exhaled.
He wasn't the only one unexplained.
There were women who levitated, girls
My age who bled from the replicated
Crucifixion wounds of Christ. So often,
Mary reappeared, there were supplicants
Who never stopped traveling to visions.
That summer three sets of faith healers filled
The school's bleachers, extending lives other
Than the ones in our house where I listened
To the old discipline of debunking.
Nobody outsmarted the Devil, not
Even the man who threw flames from his mouth.
If he wanted proof, he'd swallowed that fire,
My father muttered. If phenomena
Would save us, nothing we did would matter.
The History of the Baker's Dozen
Since he was twenty, for half of his life,
The baker has never shortweighted bread.
He accounts for the deception of air;
For cookies and cupcakes he gives thirteen.
But lately, there's been grumbling about size,
How his sweets are shrinking like candy bars.
And so much faith he has in the magic
Of numbers, how his customers are pleased,
He starts to box fourteen to the dozen.
A fool's shipment, an out-of-business count,
But his buyers gorge themselves on sweet rolls
Until everybody but the baker
Grows fat and wonders, "What's in it for him?"
While eating bear claws, the librarian
Learns the history of the baker's dozen,
All those extras insurance against fraud.
When nobody walks in to read, she calls
Her customers, and they nod from couches
As they lick thick icing from their fingers.
By now the baker only delivers,
Stops complaints at the front door with fifteen,
Then sixteen, stuffing his bargain-boxes
To pace the possibilities of guilt.
No matter the number, he's the thin man
The village hates as they wait, doors unlocked,
In their kitchen. He carries in twenty
For the price of twelve and they badmouth him.
When he brings them twenty-two, they curse him,
Oozing over their chairs like unwatched dough.
"Thief," they scream, "robber." Those who stay in bed
Shout "Rapist, killer, bring that box in here."
By the evening he doubles their dozen,
They promise to kill him: "As soon as we
Lose weight," they holler. "As soon as you stop
Bringing us doughnuts." The baker can see
That each street where he delivers merges
With a freeway. He's sure no one he serves
Can squeeze inside a car, and the next night
He walks his route, pushing crullers and cakes
In a heavy cart. Just ahead of him
He hears howling. Beyond that is a roar.
"Lead us not into temptation," he says.
"How much powdered sugar will satisfy?"
Coming, at last, to thirteen times thirteen,
Calculating, recounting, beginning
To rise as if the end of gravity
Were the sweet blessing for the pure in heart.
After one neighbor's son attacks him with a knife,
After another's returns to rob him, and one
Daughter fails a third time to kill herself, our street
Seems featured in the paper, one of those place names
Suggesting the ironic turn to disaster.
And there's more, beginning with double suicide,
Though that leads, for fifteen houses, to disbelief,
Becoming the fisherman's tale of wretched luck.
It's that name—Melody Lane—that conjures "sour note,"
"Can't carry a tune," as if each police report
Invites stale, sarcastic phrases for misfortune.
"You never know," my father cautions, visiting
The street he used to see as heaven, summing up
The blessings of squirrel and deer, oriole and finch,
Acres for houses with well-paid, working fathers
Under every roof. Across from us a woman
Limps to her mailbox, starting us to think, in spite
Of ourselves: whiskey, anger, stairs. She stops to light
A cigarette, holds her mail to the sun as if
To read amounts she owes through paper. My father,
In his car, says "you watch yourself," and fifty yards
From me, at the stop sign, he leans to his mirror
And watches me like anxiety's private eye.
If I walk toward him he'll expect me to confess.
The Waxworks of the Wealthy
Before the worst Sundays were over,
Three services, the last at twilight,
The oldest women ate from boxes.
They sat downstairs for five hours of hymns
And vows like tailgaters for heaven
While my family became fog, settling
In our rooms next door for the silence
Of newspapers, the mandatory
Study of gospels and epistles.
Each time we walked the hundred steps back
To overture, the old were seated
Where they'd been at nine and noon, close to
The altar and replicas of Christ.
In minutes they were singing their way
To ascension, faces uplifted
As if heaven's promise were hanging
From the bare ceiling of the church like
The waxworks, once, of the wealthy who
Bought likenesses above the faithful.
Who wouldn't look up and wish to join
The holy hosts? The rich dangled near
Mary; the powerful swayed by Christ
Until their heaven turned so crowded
They were lowered, oldest first, melted
Into puddles, reformed, tapering
Into the small reach of candles, lit
And used again like those that ended
Our evening service, all of them held
So level by the fear of tilting.
We knew where all of us were standing.
If we let our candles leak, their wax
Would spell our names on the dry-mopped floor.
The History of Permanence
One of the saints, his coffin reopened
By descendants of the faithful, had not
Decomposed. Blessed are the pure in heart,
They said, and even if the rest of us
Believe nothing of the Catholic ways,
What about those mummies who stayed and stayed,
No matter the lives they'd earlier lived?
Didn't those kings and queens still look themselves?
The ancient secrets of embalming said
We didn't have to turn to dust. And for
Those among us with little faith, there were
Mummy medicines, the dead-for-eons
Powdered to preserve them, and that failing,
The dust of those mummies mixed in with paint
To make art, at least, eternal. Look there,
In the detailed, brushstroked shades, something saved
For a thousand years, more than enough to
Outlast a world prophesied soon-to-die.
Those paintings would be juried, at last, to
The left- or right-hand halls of judgment, hung
In the permanent collections of God.