The swan's path is a calm infinity in Boston Common's
public pond. In it, closing back on itself after every turn,
I see the fragile image of my younger brother
in the years before his marriage failed, the rented farmhouse
south of Richmond he shared with friends, laborers
like him at Dupont Chemical. In the evenings,
their gray uniforms dark with sweat, their hair flattened into oily mats,
they squat together on the worn wood steps to smoke
a few joints and guzzle cheap beers, tossing the empties
towards the edge of the wood. They ignore the shattering.
A few minutes of silence before the alcohol kicks in,
its spidery fingers scrambling gratefully in their guts.
And then they're bitching themselves into a state of restlessness
they've finished with the niggers and the god damned democratic
president, dispensed with the northerners' spiel
on collective bargaining. They're onto women now
what cunts they are, how all they want is to take you
for a ride. Pissed at the child support somebody's
paying, the abortion another one's wife refused to have.
And without even speaking, they rise and walk down
into the meadow, their cigarettes gleaming weakly in last light,
to the place where the old car rests, a junker someone finagled
for $85 and a lid of hash. An Oldsmobile or something that
glamorous, from the 1950s, once turquoise and sleekly desirable,
Elvis blaring from the perforated speakers in either door,
a shapely car hop leaning down to latch a silver tray of fries
and shakes on the rim of the driver's window...
One of them hotwires it alive and my brother slides in, grinning,
lit now, somebody at last, both hands gripping the wheel, and takes off
around the meadow as if this time -- he might really be going somewhere.
His buddies howl when the car stalls out in a deep rut
and then roars to life again, blue smoke breaking
through the back of the engine. The car is whining and popping
with breakage, its back end swinging back and forth, the way
a wounded dog keeps going, homing for its master. The wheels
are straining, like that, trying to moving forward,
but he's just going around and around, around
in the mud stiff ruts, somewhere there in the dark cab,
his head cloudy, his mind set on nothing but the figure eight
he's making in the mud, inscribing it deep in the earth
so when God looks down He'll see the sign for infinity,
the same shape of the neat path the swan swims
in the pond at the public gardens where I sit, years away
several lives distant, a universe removed, my hands
shaking, my mouth dry, writing down the words of this poem.
Kate Daniels' most recent book is A Walk in Victoria's Secret. "The Figure Eight" is reprinted with the permission of LSU Press. She is director of Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University.