A few days ago at the store I stood in line, my groceries on the conveyor belt: butter, greens, an avocado, carrots and peppers and potatoes. The person behind me placed their items on the belt: two packages of ice cream sandwiches. About once a year I get a craving for an ice cream sandwich, and looking at the picture on the boxes made me want one. I turned to see who was buying them. She was middle-aged, with faded hair and a worn, tired face, wearing a jacket with a broken zipper. Hunched over. She’s been through some things, was the thought in my mind, and I waited for her to look up so I could smile at her and chat a little while we waited for the cashier. But she never did look up. And I thought of this poem, by the wondrous Dorianne Laux. So many people out there, all of us maybe, who have been through some things. Oh, the water.
You are the hero of this poem,
the one who leans into the night
and shoulders the stars, smoking
a cigarette you’ve sworn is your last
before reeling the children into bed.
Or you’re the last worker on the line,
lifting labeled crates onto the dock,
brown arms bare to the elbow,
your shirt smelling of seaweed and soap.
You’re the oldest daughter
of an exhausted mother, an inconsolable
father, sister to the stones thrown down
on your path. You’re the brother
who warms his own brother’s bottle,
whose arm falls asleep along the rail of his crib.
We’ve stood next to you in the checkout line,
watched you flip through tabloids or stare
at the TV Guide as if it were the moon,
your cart full of cereal, toothpaste, shampoo,
day-old bread, bags of gassed fruit,
frozen pizzas on sale for 2.99.
In the car you might slide in a tape, listen
to Van Morrison sing Oh, the water.
You stop at the light and hum along, alone.
When you slam the trunk in the driveway,
spilling the groceries, dropping your keys,
you’re someone’s love, their one brave hope;
and if they don’t run to greet you or help
with the load, they can hear you,
they know you’ve come home.