Dusty and Bugs
The kids were gone, the spouses, too,
And nothing in the world to do
But take a walk. So Dusty shut
Her door and started. So Bugs shut
His door and started. His wife was at
Some conference, and her husband sat
In some hotel somewhere, between
Some meeting and a TV screen.
Because left seemed about as good
As right, Bugs strolled the neighborhood
His way, a tall, shuffling way,
A tousled, fair-haired, shy-eyed way,
A storky, slim, straight-shouldered way
Much like his life, elusive thing
Of which he’d never been the king,
While Dusty started right because
A single choice was all there was
And she chose right, and always right,
As right for this and every night.
Her thick lips, Asiatic eyes,
And straight, black hair down to her thighs
Were known by every family
As something they were glad to see.
So he walked up, and she walked down:
They coursed through different parts of town
They knew like their own mouths. And each
Felt solitude stretch like a beach
Where no one beaches, no one plays,
A strand of days and days and days.
They held off melancholy scenes
With family thoughts, of babes and teens,
Laughter like paneling, love like a roof
That held against the rain for proof.
It could not be unhappiness,
But out beneath the stars, I guess,
Each got to feeling very small
Indeed — or hardly there at all.
With all adults are taught to own,
They weren’t used to being alone.
So they and their not-quite-regret
Came round a corner — and they met.
They smiled and hugged (after a start),
Right neighborly. A walk apart
Seemed dull, so Dusty Bugs invited.
Each said, “OK.” Both delighted.
The first time they went round, the talk
Was this fine night, good for a walk
After a hot day, soft and cool.
Their kids had gone to someone’s pool
Together for the afternoon
Until they swam beneath the moon
(Their kids — each other’s kids; between
Them five; her youngest now a teen;
Two homes; nine ways a friendship thrives —
Had lived together all their lives),
And then off to the movies. Soon —
You play the axe and learn the tune —
The call they knew would come had come:
“Can we sleep over?” “You be home
By eight tomorrow morning! You
Have riding lessons, and you two
Have summer school!” he’d said,
Or, rather, pleaded, holding his head
And mumbling, “Christ.” But so had she.
Bugs: “Man.” And she: “I know.” And he:
“It never stops.” And Dusty: “No,
It doesn’t.” “I don’t want it to,”
Bugs said, and Dusty laughed: “I guessed
You didn’t.” “But I’d like a rest.”
And as they traded words like these,
Orion chased the Pleiades,
And as Orion does each night,
Failed to catch them. Serves him right.
In murmurs far too soft for verse
The two friends managed to rehearse
Their lives together, up and down
The dark streets of their sleeping town:
The rainy night two couples met
In California, lonely, wet
(A roaring, dim, relentless storm
Was making it undry, unwarm),
Not yet befriended. It’s what greets a
Person from the East: bad pizza,
Bad as it could be, so bad
It struck them funny, struck them sad,
Until they laugh/cried. In the booth
Across from them — no, it’s the truth —
Another couple laugh/cried, too.
That night it was the thing to do.
Good Dusty called: “Come over here,”
Invited them to have a beer.
Four Easterners thus drowned their care.
Why not? Manhattan wasn’t there.
When Dusty’d sipped enough joyjuice
She spoke, herself to introduce:
She ran the house; her man sold drugs
Around the world for Merck. Now Bugs,
When called on to present his list,
Presented his oncologist
Beloved, for whose job they’d come
Three thousand miles away from home.
She ran a cancer ward. Her sole
Obsession and her cherished goal:
To conquer cancer, or forestall.
Bugs “did computers.” That was all.
Across the initialled table, they
Became good friends. What more to say?
Husband, woman, man and wife
Investors in a sharing life.
are like a bubble:
Grow and grow and — pop — there’s trouble.
Bugs lost his job, and therefore he
Stayed home to father family.
His wife kept her face well-appointed:
No, she wasn’t disappointed;
He, with smiling face on tight
To show the world that all was bright,
Excelled at being kid-detailed
While all the world believed he’d failed.
And he saw Dusty every day
(She ran the house, remember); they
Joined forces to keep fun alive
For one, and two, and three-four-five.
First births, then birthdays, day care, schools,
And summers at a hundred pools.
She taught his how to swim; he taught
Hers how to ride a bike. Each thought
The best thing in their lives was how
Their children grew from then to now.
His three girls, and her girl and boy
Brought Bugs and Dusty work and joy,
An awe at time within its grip,
At what the kids would do today,
What sparked their thinking, what they’d say.
(She: “Question-time would be the best.”
He: “We tried hard, like all the rest.”)
When spouses came home, there was news
To gladden, worry, and confuse.
His wife was pleased to leave behind
The cancers, to release her mind
Homeward. One doubt she’d never had:
That Bugs was good at being a dad.
And Dusty’s husband loved the tales
She told him on the phone, of pails
And games, of movies, jokes, and feats
Like standing on your head, of treats
And lunches, naps and stories.
Besides the glads, their lives held sorries:
Her husband, an executive
Of sales for Big Drug Co, would live
Whole months in cars, hotels, and trains;
Made love to her by phone; the strains
Of schedule, worse than sex or cash,
Had nearly brought their lives to smash
A time or two (Bugs said, “I know.
We couldn’t help. We felt it, though.”
“Believe me,” Dusty said, “we knew
You felt for us. It helped us through.”
He said, “What’re you gonna do?
We’re friends and neighbors — close — we did —
N’t want to pry.” “You never did.”)
One day they met at Bill’s One Stop.
He asked, “How are you?”, saw tears drop,
And saw her hide them from her boys
And girl, distracted with their toys.
He bought her coffee, held her hand,
Listened, and said, “I understand”
Until she felt that she could face
Her kids again, and left the place.
His wife, chief of oncology
For St. Clare’s Hospital, would be
The only one who earned a check
For years for them — and that would wreck
Some men. Not Bugs, though. He was proud
Of her, a true admirer. Loud
Where Bugs was quiet, tense where he
Was loose, this woman tried to be
A superheroine — and was.
But work unwomaned her, because
She saw such sick and dying sure
Of death. For most, there was no cure
Save soul-destroying surgery
Or grinding chemotherapy.
Decline was slow and knowing. So
Was how her love declined, although
She hid it. But as make-up won’t
Hide wounds too well, the things we don’t
Sincerely feel will thrust aside
Our counterfeits, will override.
Bugs realized, his eyes aswim,
That she was growing cold to him.
What roused her was a curious thing,
A blessing anguishes can bring
Sometimes. Her office had a chair
For patients. One day, sitting there,
Who should she find but Dusty? Not
For lunch or coffee, as she thought,
But bitter news, in words that were
The cancer that was killing her.
Physicians shouldn’t weep, but she
Embraced her friend in misery
And shuddered as she shuddered, eye
To weeping eye, and she, close by,
Heard Dusty: “I don’t want to die.”
“You won’t,” she said, used all she knew,
All her machines, all she could do,
All miracles and arts, to end
The killer deep inside her friend.
Then Dusty’s face and hair went grey —
Her doctor cheered her on to stay
The course, hold on, be strong, get bald,
Get skeletal. The fight enthralled
His wife, who seemed to wake each day
To find another clever way
To “get this fucking thing,” and one
Day tests arrived: No more. They’d won.
The four of them — her husband; Bugs;
His wife; and she in four-way hugs —
Exulted, and such moments prove
That people still believe in love.
(Dusty: “I’ve never been the same.”
And Bugs: “You’re fine.” “I’m glad I came.
It’s quite a night,” she said. Moon dangled
In a night sky nova-spangled.)
She’d grown her hair out, dyed it black,
Filled out again. “The funny back
And forth of things,” she said. “I know
That more than that came back.”
He said: With Dusty well, his wife
Returned to him. Her patient’s life
Had ransomed hers, had energized
Her. Kissed Bugs. Wept. Apologized
(“For nothing,” he said now. Dusty:
“You’d be surprised. Apology
Is something you should let people do.
She needed it. She needed you”).
Some unions can’t withstand the stress
Of sorrow and collapse… but, yes,
Some do recover, intersect
Like new again. Loves reconnect.
Four knew how marriage can go dead
For years then rear its lop-eared head
Refreshed, as from a sleep — and why
It slept or waked, a mystery.
These four believed the marriage dance
Could prosper, given one more chance,
So chance succeeded chance, and chance
Bore out the circle in the dance.
Woman and husband, man and wife
Determined it would last for life
Or kill them first.
… they talked off-track
Then back on track…
“The funny back
And forth,” Bugs echoed. Dusty knew
What memory was coming to:
Regaining wife, a daughter lost,
Of all his pleasures, mourning most.
“I could have saved her,” Bugs said. “You,”
She said, “Did all a man could do.”
“Thanks, Dusty.” Breezes babied them…
The day it happened, IBM
Sent offers of a job. He bent
To cast the earth, his heart cement,
Put on a joyless tie, and went.
In her best gift to Bugs, his wife
Decided she preferred a life
Of giving life to sorrow. This
She said to Bugs from kiss to kiss:
“Let’s have another.” So they did:
A boy, the quickest, gladdest kid
Four parents ever loved. He could
Not take a daughter’s place, but would
Create a new best place for good.
… They’d walked five
times around the town
Of slumber, every up and down
Made second nature now…
Their conversation plumbed profound
Emotions, from two lives too full
In voices whispers from a lull:
Elation; dejection; joy and grief
… And food. Belief and unbelief…
The price of gasoline… and let’s
Remember what’s important: pets.
She: “Job? I never wanted one.”
“I’d like to quit mine. It was fun
Raising the kids,” he said. “Those days,”
She said. Nostalgia for those days
Made longing walk with them. “Those days,”
Bugs echoed back. And she: “Those days,”
Home movies in her head. “Those days
Seemed endless,” Bugs said. Now she stopped:
Beyond her power, a tear had dropped.
A foot away, he felt her grieve.
She turned: “I feel my children leave.
It’s not fair.” Not that they were getting
Old, but that their sun was setting
So imperceptibly that they
Could barely feel it slip away,
Unfelt, unfair. Time’s robbery
(Itself from them) at least could be
A stepwise thing that they could know
And name it, tell it, watch it go.
How sorrows faded, joys survived:
A man and woman who had lived
So much of life in parallel
Were glad to know each other well.
… Bugs said, amid the stellar hum,
How cruel the country had become.
Too many people still in need
To be so selfish. She agreed
But added that the folks they knew
At least had been good neighbors. “Do
You realize how well we know
Each other?” Dusty asked, aglow
With all they held in common. He
Had turned to say he did, when she
Kissed him, hungrily, searching, sweet.
Lightning shot up through their feet,
Exploding in their brains. The kiss
Continued. She entwined him. Hiss
Of distant stars and traffic. His
Strong arms around her shoulders. Kiss,
Completed circuit, conducted bliss
Through chests, mouths, legs. The precipice
Of passion, realization, is
The way it is sometimes. The kiss
Continued and continued. This
Alarmed their nerves and sinews, criss —
Crossing from her to him and gliss —
Andoing back from him to her,
Erasing when and where they were,
Who they had been and what it meant
As earth veered through the firmament.
He came to, realized they stood
Next to the Mees’ wall, and good
Luck: the Mees were gone, their kids
In tow. Bugs blinked his fair eyelids
(His habit when he thought), stooped down,
And linked his fingers. Who in town
Would have believed her smile when she
Stepped in his hold and rose, to be
Muscled to where she scrambled atop
The wall, gazed down, and took the drop
Into the perfect black? His tall
Legs swung atop the Mees’ wall,
And Bugs went over in one move,
Powered by motives much like love.
Now all the teachers look askance
And churches stand in vigilance
And some would call an ambulance
Against the sheer precipitance,
Incontinence, and penetrance
That darkness hid. Irrelevance
And petulance and arrogance
And — say it — insignificance!
Beneath the lunar radiance,
In universal sibilance,
Wrapped in the cloak of jubilance,
Entranced in heady nonchalance,
This couple found their resonance.
They scented, as they made their moves,
The citrus tang of distant groves,
Night-blooming jasmine, roses’ riot
On Californian breezes, quiet
Oleander, honeysuckle —
Did those lovers ever chuckle To taste the luscious and forbidden,
So long looked-for, if dream-hidden!
Their muscles sang; their spirits coiled;
Their backs and knees were getting soiled.
Things she hoped for, things he knew,
Plus things you’re not supposed to do.
In calling out each other’s name,
They came and came and came and came.
The Mees did not return, but time
Will pass; the stars and moon will climb.
No time inside their heads, but then
Time doesn’t ask. Relax again,
Resume, relax, resume — and then
They, with reluctance, felt befriend
Them now a feeling of the end,
The moment nothing could disguise
To kiss her once more, help her rise.
They stood, a picture of their best,
And saw each other, guest and guest,
As perfect as they’d ever get,
Their moment of the ultimate.
They did not turn from what they saw,
But looked with reverence and awe
At all experience could bless
With maculate exquisiteness
Seen now but covered up too soon:
The truth transfigured by the moon
(Her womanly maturity;
The man in him, which sought to be
Back where it had been, now was guided
By friendship, and therefore subsided).
Invaginating moonlight cased
Them as they dirtily embraced,
Never so lovely or so chaste,
Nor ever so true to spouse as when
Bugs said, “We won’t do this again.”
Then, to the call of a distant owl,
He hosed her off and got a towel
As watchdogs barked and highways coughed
To dry her lovely, carefully, soft.
The darkness covered what they said
And did before each went to bed
Alone, but if they suffered then,
It was as lovers suffer when
They’ve loved and will not love again,
Who, once together, now must part,
Return to spouse and children. Start
A new life would be wrong. Disown
Their lives, their flesh? Pull house down
Because this happened? He, she sighed;
She loved her husband, he his bride.
Exhausted by their intersect,
Intent that need won’t resurrect
Before they let their heads down to
The tender pillow, they’ll review
Tomorrow’s schedule: summer school
And shopping, comforts of the carpool.
Conscience pains them? It will be
A pain consigned to secrecy
Away from priest, friends, husband, wife,
And from each other, all long life
For good, releasing each to drowse
All night in an abandoned house
Shifting in shadows till dawn burns
And longed-for family returns
With household needs they’d rather face
Now that they’ve… but they now embrace
The tendrilled arms of dreamy REM.
Perhaps they dreamed it, or it them.
John Timpane is the Media Editor/Writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has appeared in Sequoia, The Fox Chase Review, Cleaver, Apiary, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Review of Books, The Rathalla Review, Per Contra, Vocabula Review, and elsewhere. Books include (with Nancy H. Packer) Writing Worth Reading (NY: St. Martin, 1994), It Could Be Verse (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed, 1995), (with Maureen Watts and the Poetry Center of Cal State San Francisco) Poetry for Dummies, and (with Roland Reisley) Usonia, N.Y.: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), plus a poetry chapbook, Burning Bush (Ontario, Canada: Judith Fitzgerald/Cranberry Tree, 2011). His e-mail band, Car Radio Dog, has just released its second CD, Back to the Bone. He is spouse to Maria-Christina Keller, and they are parents of Pilar and Conor.