Wan Hope

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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for Robert Pinsky

After we got suckered and lost the war there weren't jobs or any place to roost, so we just humped along close to the coast scrabbling one day at a time. Now, on this one evening, see? We've tied up the boat and we're clanking down a vaulted hall looking for dinner, a bath, maybe a girl when Aeneas stops dead like he's been coldcocked and starts juicing the inside of his elbow with this noble flood of tears and snot over nothing but pictures on the wall. Then I see it too and I can't believe my eyes! There's Anchises, Hector, Priam—all of us, both living and dead stiff as hell configured in the doing of deeds. And the war just a few years old! The rest of us just have to wait it out while Aeneas blubbers over how beautiful sadness is for about fifteen minutes, dabbing at our eyes like a gnat's got in there and all tensed up to an acute knowledge that there's nowhere natural to put your hands in this world. I'll tell you the truth, doomed and gloomed as anyone there, it was me who unfroze this poignant tableau back on reel. Real casual I put my arm on my pal, "How's that new helmet liner, still chafing?" And in the echo of our own hollow clanging, we walked on then. "Tough-guy swagger," a critic might say. "A wise-ass trivialization of human grandeur and tenure revealing naught but the poet's own spiritual paucity." Whew! And wanly, my pale fish-hand in a dazed drift up to the bait, I could only say, "Well, at least I was there."

But that's crap; I wasn't there. This part's been just a poem, a parable meant so cold souls can't understand and be forgiven. But now I'll tell the story behind the story. A school pal and I bartended fraternity parties and at one in the pre-dawn wreckage when only the team's star tackle was left with his toxic fear and rage, and his vicious sycophants, and two high-school girls, deaddrunk, who shouldn't have been there, those cruel thugs told them to undress and beat them when they wouldn't. My friend said, "Hey, you bastards, leave them alone!" and they beat us too. They cracked his ribs and his jaw and made his gut bleed. I fought hard until they re-broke my nose and then—what the hell— begged for mercy. They took the cutest girl upstairs, clamped her neck in a windowsash and ganged her from behind. We sat out on the curb away from the light under a sickle moon with the other girl who just whimpered when we spoke and wouldn't let us touch her. My pal began to cry, a terrible weeping without hope or dignity, and he beat his knuckles on the asphalt. Then I said this, "Listen, those girls should have known; we did all we could." Which is crap, of course, and I suppose on the blackboard of an ethics course before a warm crescent of faces some yellow chalk could screech this so a rubber-tipped pointer could jab it: accidie. Cowardice in greek, as doctors always scribble names of sickness. The point, again, is that I was there—again and again and again in places so stupid they're hidden not merely from cunning but from wisdom itself. And I never saved anyone for Love and Freedom and Art— in fact, all those I drank and fought with got turned to pigs and run off cliffs. Even now, most of these I put my arm around still smoke cigarettes though every cough rumbles with warning like an inscrutable parable, righteous and merciless. My soul? It is like this: a gray barmop, all sweetness soured by shame, but no matter how sodden with bitter spillage or the biles that ferment with grief inside of men you can wring this thing of tears again and again. And whatever words I've said, no matter how churlish and wrong, I meant them for pity's sake and if I could I'd soak all the world's anguish up inside me and save the living and the dead.

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