Local Customs

The train you have been traveling on begins
to slow. You hear it as the rhythm
of the tracks relaxes, as a taut rope
goes slack.  Your car slides past a platform—
the sign a word of mostly consonants,
and the whole train shakes to a stop.

Outside the window is a polluted country
where it is always near dusk.
Along the tracks a few oddly spaced saplings
with wilting leaves.  A dim orange
glow in their branches lights the fingers
of a young soldier who believes he’s invisible.

A rapping at your door and a man in uniform
barks for your papers.  His stubby fingers flip
through your passport, his knuckles like mute walnuts.
You have seen him before. He is that man
in any American town who splits his time
between legion hall and barbershop. He is the piano
teacher who never leaves his house and speaks
only poor English. He is the stubborn husband
who goes to the tavern before noon and leaves a bitter,
plump wife at home.  He is you, unable to explain
to your lover why you must go, only that you have to.

This customs officer barely notices you. He snaps
your book shut, asking nothing.  You are not the one
they are looking for. Your baggage untouched, you’ve nothing
to hide. You begin to think you should have smuggled
something: magazines or marijuana, cameras,
a child, some justification for being there.  You peer outside
into a darkening country.  The trees have moved.
Small clouds breathe from their branches. There is a chill
of being watched, yet you remain anonymous,
a puff of fresh air in the cold night on the border.


Originally published in Artful Dodge 22/23, 1992.