hospice

by Lynda Hull

Image: St. Lucy's Church
Image: St. Lucy’s Church

Frayed cables bear perilously the antiquated lift,
all glass and wrought iron past each apartment floor
like those devices for raising and lowering
angels of rescue in Medieval plays. Last night
the stairwell lamps flickered off and I was borne up
the seven floors in darkness, the lift a small lit

cage where I thought of you, of the Catholic souls
we envisioned once, catechism class, the saint
in her moment of grace transfigured as she’s engulfed
in flames. The lift shivered to a halt above the shaft
and I was afraid for a moment to open the grille,
wanting that suspension again, the requiemed hum

of one more city going on without me—Cockney girls
with violet hair swirling among the businessmen
and movie ushers of Soho, sullen in their jackets.
All of them staving off as long as they can
the inevitable passing away, that bland euphemism
for death. But I can’t shake this from my mind:

your face with its hollows against hospital linen.
Newark’s empty asylum wings opened again this year
for the terminal cases. Each day another
strung-out welfare mother, the streetcorner romeos
we used to think so glamorous, all jacked-up
on two-buck shots. It was winter when I last was home

and my mother found you on her endless dietician’s
rounds, her heavy ring of keys. It was winter
when I saw you, Loretta, who taught me to curse
in Italian, who taught me to find the good vein
in the blue and yellow hours of our sixteenth year
among deep nets of shadows dragged through evening, a surf

of trees by the railway’s sharp cinders. Glittering
like teen dream angels in some corny A.M. song,
buoyed by whatever would lift us above the smouldering
asphalt, the shingled narrow houses, we must
have felt beyond all damage. Still what damage carried you
all these years beyond the fast season of loveliness

you knew before the sirens started telling your story
all over town, before the habit stole
the luster from your movie starlet hair.
Little sister, the orderlies were afraid to
touch you. Tonight, the current kicks the lights
back on and there’s the steady moan of the lift’s

descent, the portion of what’s left of this day
spread before me—stockings drying on the sill, the cool
shoulders of milk bottles—such small domestic salvations.
There was no deus ex machina for you, gone now
this half year, no blazing seraphim, finally
no miraculous escape, though how many times

I watched you rise again and again from the dead:
that night at the dealers’ on Orange Street, stripping
you down, overdosed and blanched against the green linoleum,
ice and saline. I slapped you and slapped you until
the faint flower of your breath clouded the mirror.
In those years I thought death was a long blue hallway

you carried inside, a curtain lifting at the end
in the single window’s terrible soft breeze where
there was always a cashier ready to take your
last silver into her gloved hands, some dicey, edgy game.
Beneath the ward clock’s round dispassionate face
there was nothing so barren in the sift from minute

to absolute minute, a slow-motion atmosphere dense
as the air of Medieval illuminations with demons
and diaphanous beings. I only wished then
the cancellation of that hungering that turns us
towards the mortal arms of lovers or highways
or whatever form of forgetfulness we choose.

Your breath barely troubled the sheets, eyes closed,
perhaps already adrift beyond the body, twisting
in a tissue of smoke and dust over Jersey’s
infernal glory of cocktail lounges and chemical plants,
the lonely islands of gas stations lining the turnpike
we used to hitch towards the shore, a moment

I want back tonight—you and me on the boardwalk,
the casino arcade closed around its pinball machines
and distorting mirrors. Just us among sea serpents,
those copper horses with mermaid’s tails, porpoise fins,
and the reckless murmur of the sea. Watching stars
you said you could almost believe the world arranged

by a design that made a kind of sense. That night
the constellations were so clear it was easy
to imagine some minor character borne up
beyond judgement into heaven, rendered purely
into light. Loretta, this evening washes
over my shoulders, this provisional reprieve.

I’ve been telling myself your story for months
and it spreads in the dusk, hushing the streets, and there
you are in the curve of a girl’s hand as she lights
her cigarette sheltered beneath the doorway’s plaster
cornucopia. Listen, how all along the avenues trees
are shaken with rumor of this strange good fortune.

This poem is reproduced as it was printed in the Spring 1989 issue of Ploughshares.

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