Immortal mortals, mortal immortals, one living the other’s death
and dying the other’s life.
It was a 1954 Ford pickup truck that stopped
on the shoulder of the road in front of me.
The driver leaned over and popped open the door
as I trotted up. Getting in, I looked him over,
A big man with long silver hair and a cowboy hat,
and I knew him at once as Heraclitus disguised
As a shaman of the Hopi nation. Where you heading?
he asked. End of the world, I said. He nodded.
Not surprised, he told me. I’m heading there myself.
Next a hooded rat guided me through a tunnel
every available surface of which—walls,
Floor, ceiling—held a door. There were hundreds,
perhaps millions, of every shape and size.
I traveled the shaft for hours, walking on jambs,
bumping into lintels, tripping on knobs and latches,
The rat scampering ahead of me. I struggled
not to step on his hideous tail. At last he stopped
And scratched on a door set in the wall. How do you know
I asked him, that it’s this one? He squinted at me
In disgust. It has your name all over it, he said. Can’t you read?
Then I was back in my second grade classroom
doing a timed reading test. I opened the book
And nothing I saw made sense. The rat was right,
I thought. I can’t read. But just then the teacher,
Kindly Mrs. Mullins—I was her pet—came to me,
draped me in a black cape, led me to the back
Of the room to the science table, and locked me in my cage.
But the timer kept ticking. I was failing the test.
I would become a laughing-stock, be thrown
Out of school, make a life in a cardboard box
under an overpass. My cage was a cardboard box,
The traffic was thundering above me, I had a crust
of sandwich dug from a dumpster, I had a grimy robe
St. Francis gave me. St. Francis sat next to me
His back against the abutment. He was covered in birds.
Listen, kid, he said in a rat-like voice, the secret of life
is a secret. Stop worrying. All of us are homeless bums.
At the shelter, they gave me a bowl of soup, a map,
and a set of car keys. It was a pleasure
To have a Mercedes, but the map was a treasure,
there were instructions in a pirate’s scrawl
And at the center an X. You’d think the end of the world
would be that obvious. The problem is, the road
Is your life, and your life is a secret. I drove
for hours on the Autobahn, the Mercedes
Was a dream. It felt like oblivion on wheels.
I could drive this way forever.
Listen, the rat said. He turned up at the crucial moment
I was struggling to change a flat tire. You’re a moron.
You’ll never get there this way. Take the short cut.
There was a naked path by the highway
Leading into a littered bog. What do you think? I asked.
St. Francis shrugged. Six of one, he said.
So I left the car teetering on its jack, and headed
out through the sumac and muddy beer cans.
The rat waved its tail. Turn left, St. Francis said,
when you get to the middle of nowhere.
The middle of nowhere is an X.
It’s a clearing in the middle of a forest
Midway of course in life’s journey of course,
where vultures circle. I watched them awhile—
They were a great grim dance in a grim gray sky—
and meditated a little. Maybe I prayed a little.
I’m not sure what the difference is. When I turned
left, I was in a whipped-out trailer park.
Everything was abandoned, the cheap mobile homes,
the swing sets and sandboxes, the folding chairs,
A dented blue tricycle lying on its side, one wheel turning.
I walked up and down the rows, all the trailers alike,
Windows broken out, axles rusting. When I turned a corner,
I saw him sitting on a camp stool. His cowboy hat
Had a gold medallion on the crown, and he wore
a bolo tie with a turquoise clasp. So you finally got here,
He said, and he pointed at the last trailer, which bore a banner,
Blue, with gold lettering: Welcome to the end of the world.
The trailer was clean and empty except for a wooden table
by the window on which someone had set a shallow dish
With a jonquil growing in rocks and water, its bulb bare
the way people force them to bloom indoors.
It had been there a little overlong, its three white blossoms
browning at the edges, and the foliage
Sickly and limp. I got some water from the sink
but I knew it was futile. The timer was ticking,
The test was going on, and the flowers had the faces
of my wife and daughters—I could see them clearly there
At a great distance, fading from me, but the perfume
of the jonquil was oddly like an orchid, or a poppy,
Or a black rose, and St. Francis was saying You should have paid
more attention to the birds, and the rat was saying
Humans make such a big deal of it, and Heraclitus
said nothing. He pointed, standing by the open door.
T.R. Hummer is the Recipient of the Richard Wright Prize for Literature and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, and is an internationally-recognized poet and scholar who was born and raised in Macon, Mississippi. His latest book of poems, Skandalon, was published by LSU in 2014,and a new book of essays, Available Surfaces, appeared in the University of Michigan Press’s “Poets on Poetry” series in August 2012. His forthcoming book, Eon, will be published by LSU in 2018.