When I found this card under my wiper blade, I was a few months into a marital separation which I was having a hard time processing, much less writing about. I was seized by guilt and an impulse to find this unlucky woman and to make amends. I came close to calling the number on the card to explain that I would never pilfer a stranger's money. But then I realized it was not the woman's own business card, but one taken from the restaurant I had parked in front of. The dining room manager was an unwitting bystander.
When I began the poem, I didn't know why it made sense to address my remarks to Mr. Strausbaugh; I guess it seemed as if he had been given to me, and I might as well use him. The epistolary form calls for a balance between distance and intimacy. Taking the confidence of the person farthest removed from either situation helped me to dig into my twin feelings of guilt over this woman's anonymous accusation and the ways I had let my marriage dissolve.
Dear Mark Strausbaugh, Dining Room Manager,
I found your business card tucked under my windshield wiper.
A woman had written on the back in leaning script:
"Thank you for giving the ice cream guy
my wallet but shame on you for taking
all my money." And I want to tell her by the time
I found her wallet jackknifed over a sewer grate
the cash was already stripped; I want to say
I tried to find the punk responsible
but too many hunchbacks in hoodies
were fleeing the scene, or to tell her that I'm sorry
but I really needed the money, because I've been kicked out
by the woman I love and I don't know how I can make it
through October but, Mr. Strausbaugh, I never saw the woman
or her wallet. I never saw the ice cream guy or took
anyone's money but I still feel terrible
about what I've done. As dining room manager
you must be responsible for such gladness,
keeping candles lit and clean glasses glowing on every table
over which toasts are raised and lovers'
whispers wrestle. I've eaten at your restaurant,
I've devoured the chicken marsala and orzo pasta
and beamed across my empty plate at the woman I love,
sated and sheepish and knowing I had done so little
to deserve such fullness, and we paid our bill
and walked hand in hand through the freezing world,
and made love or didn't, made love or lay wondering
why we didn't, smoldering in the bed to press skin to skin
but screened off by t-shirts, not daring to press
the issue or, sadder, relieved not to.
There were days, Mr. Strausbaugh, folding laundry
when I'd come to a pair of her underwear
warm from the dryer and curl on the carpet
holding its black lace to my throat. Now I live on a craggy satellite
of my old life, where gravity's weak, air
is thin and some mornings I get out of the shower
and can't get one step farther. Somewhere a stranger
whose blame I carry in my palm bursts
into tears over the list of items she suddenly can't afford,
milk or smokes or a pregnancy test,
and I feel terrible about what I've done
which is so little, I never slammed a door or burst a bubble
or said anything unforgivable because I never said anything.
I wear the clothes I've always worn even when the cuffs
of my jeans are a frayed white mess, when years
of the same steps taken through the house
unravel me from the bottom up. She loved me,
Mr. Strausbaugh, that day in your restaurant, so many days
before and after, days of frustrating television, sweatpants
and broken toes and underground lightning and now it's outer space,
that love, it's a vacuum, there's no mass in it
and I never saw the ice cream guy, I can't rush back with a fistful
of pilfered bills and say here, love, it was all a mistake,
this is yours, love, and I didn't mean to keep it
pocketed with this hand-scrawled card that tells me all I need
to feel: Thanks and shame. Thanks. And shame.
Scott Beal's poems have appeared recently in Indiana Review, The Collagist, Dunes Review, and in a split book with Rachel McKibbens and Aracelis Girmay entitled Jangle the Threads (Red Beard Press, 2010). He earned his MFA in 1996 from the University of Michigan. He teaches poetry and fiction workshops at the Neutral Zone and 826michigan, and serves as a writer-in-the-schools for Dzanc Books in Ann Arbor and for InsideOut Literary Arts in Detroit.