We’d always thought that it must take a solemn step to reach the Underworld, through a cleft rock, driven by love or fear, a plain and heavy coin in pocket to pay the dour ferryman. It takes twenty bucks from Baltimore and no serious passage of time. A woman nearby reads a coloring book, the man beside her shushing anyone who speaks. Twenty bucks and the time it takes to cross New Jersey’s famous, feral reek, the flame-lit tracts of refineries, watching mile markers decrement to the throat of stone we’d always known would open beneath the river. At Forty-Second St. and Eighth, one hundred prophets wait where I’ll descend from the smell of urine to the smell of older urine at the Port Authority Terminal. Other fictions told us of the host of milling pagan aides, warned us not to eat, or speak aloud our given names. One weak mythology elaborates a City of Regret, while in the city of my birth another boy I knew is dead for no reason better than the fact the earth moves continuously, so decreed by the distant deities of molten core and supernova, who no one gives a damn for in revenge. Even the truth is a story that makes no sense. Dear friend, whose photo sits atop a casket where your head is crushed; dear friend, I didn’t speak to for a decade and won’t again, you never missed me, and yours is not the first death I’ve spoken crassly of before I’d bow in upstate parlors with the bereft. My worst sin remains the theft of an orange from one of two large silver bowls in the foyer overfull with them. There was never any risk the dead would keep us. Another driver honors my return, then curses our way through Newark. I can tell he cares for nothing recognized as belief by riders with their want for story feeding small privations, who tap their unlit cigarettes three hours against their teeth, sing beneath their breath to the rats in the riddled box that shares their seat. Look at how I fit among them, friend, the man who weighs an orange on his palm, puts all his memories in little rooms the way we learned to commit the early cantos. I can’t tell a solemn step from the show I’ll later make of it. If there’s a City of Regret, we enter at the depot lot behind the stadium, emptied from one keening transport for a local bus and our regular lives, whose halting conduct takes no time to betray our fresh mnemonics, leaves the words we thought of soured in our mouths, the fruits we thought to carry puckered in our fists.
-- Stephen Lackaye is the author of Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape (Unicorn Press, 2016), a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and an Eric Hoffer Prize. His poems can be found recently in Southern Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Shore, Radar Poetry, and Los Angeles Review. Stephen lives in Oregon, where he is a bookseller.