What Surprised Me Most
beneath surgery-bright restaurant lights
was the unspoken collusion of employees and patrons
to ignore the bone-defined man as he tapped thin-paned glass to beg for food.
He shoved skeletal hands toward his gaping mouth as if to fill the gnawing
we could not imagine while digesting pasta and merlot rather than
our muscles to survive as this man’s body had, his hollowed face
pleading as he mimed across the chasm of language, culture, class.
After the waiter returned our leftovers, snug in styrofoam,
I took them across the restaurant, my legs heavy beneath reproach’s
hypnotic weight from those unwilling to squander rules of etiquette
that weave the fabric that insures our warmth as others freeze.
Once outside I saw him, through my breath, accept a dollar from
two spike-heeled women as they scuttled from a restaurant across the street,
yet money’s a tool for future trade, no immediate relief for the churning gut.
Drunk with hunger, he wavered in the crosswalk till a horn startled him
back to the curb. Waving, I caught his eye, offered the bright box. Our eyes
locked yet he wouldn’t move, suspended in a code more compelling than
hunger’s desperation, a code older than the south and dangerous as asphyxiation.
Cloaked in privilege, I left our paltry leftovers on the metal bus stop bench
and returned to the restaurant’s glare, each of us visible through glass walls.
He sprinted across the street, gulped what would have been tomorrow’s lunch,
threw away the box, and returned to the window beside us.
He smiled, waved, tried to thank me, but I saw him only peripherally,
embarrassed to accept gratitude for so little before he walked away.
Thank you to the editors of decomP magazinE who first published this poem.