The Poorest County in Kansas
I built my daughters a rabbit hutch,
scrapped together from scabbed lumber
along the wall of the garage. I nailed
them with sixteen penny nails from the bottom
of my toolbox, and then, tacked the roof
with eights from broken pickets in the burn pile.
Many I had to unbend with my hammer,
tapping them on a brick until they resembled
the straight lines they once held.
Chicken wire and steel cloth was a problem.
The hardware store was closed on Easter,
the churches pew-filled, the shops shut
on the bluest of Blue Sundays.
The rabbits, one white, one black,
had arrived that morning
in a cardboard box, nesting in a gym towel.
I drove the alley in my pickup truck,
hunting cast off wire. Finally,
behind a row of duplexes, picked over
for copper tubing and galvanized steel,
I found a small roll
of garden fencing, saved from rust
by the angle of a fallen roof. I doubled
the wire on the bottom to keep the rabbit’s
feet from falling through the gaps,
eyeing enough space for their pellets
to drop into the berm they’d build
throughout the spring and summer.
When it cooled in autumn, I raked them
into the tomato bed, behind the crepe myrtle,
back where the paint is peeling, where
even a rabbit’s hill cools until used.
There’s something out of reach in October,
so far beyond me that I cannot put a name to it.
It waits on the path through the trees, the damp leaves
rich with gold and orange, in some cases
the stems standing upright, also bright, also colored.
Thoreau said, the leaves teach us how to die,
but I am not so lucky, for I have learned only to want
more. Even more of the falling, the inaudible gasp
of the leaf letting go from the branch, the brief
twirling as it catches the light, the loosened shoelaces,
the wallered-out eyelets, the cricket taps its shoes
before the first freeze, the tune singular,
as much laced to earth as tied to hope.
Would You Would You
If your friends jumped from a bridge…
The answer of course was yes,
jump, always jump, arms and legs flailing
into the sky without a moon.
The water below, below the bridge,
below the moonless sky, split by
a stone, the guess of depth.
Finally, a silhouette
on a bridge alone, standing, turning
the truth. Alone on the railing,
with the truth, the bitch of the truth,
not knowing the leap, the splash,
all the while the accusations from downriver
rising like a nation,
up from the muddy river, the voices
of ducks, carp, and cottonmouths.
Al Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas, and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a 2019 recipient of the Rattle Chapbook Series Award. After 43 years of teaching English in public schools, he currently lives a life without bells and fire drills in the Kansas City area.
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