Gary Fincke’s most recent collections of poetry, Standing around the Heart (2005) and The Fire Landscape (2008), were published by the University of Arkansas Press. His collection of stories, Sorry I Worried You, won the Flannery O’Connor Prize and was published by Georgia University Press. His most recent memoirs, Amp'd: A Father's Backstage Pass (2004) and the forthcoming The Canals of Mars, are both with Michigan State UP.
The Barter System
The morning our neighbor Mike Polkovich
Stuck a shotgun into his mouth, I was
Picking red raspberries from the bushes
That ran a boundary between our yards.
My father was an hour into sleep
After his night shift at the bakery
Where he never used those berries because
Fresh fruit pies, he explained, would be too dear
For families who worked shifts of their own.
Mrs. Cellendar, who lived behind us,
Paid fifty cents a quart and expected
The level of each box to be mounded,
And so I was adding extra berries
When Mike Polkovich, months unemployed, picked
Five minutes past nine, the third of July,
For his last job, that gun firing so close
I mistook the sound for celebration.
Fifty years later, I lift leaves to find
Berries where my father insists they hang.
My fingers turn dark red as I fill two
Of his ancient quart cartons, beginning
Another while he repeats, “Under there”
From where he leans hard upon a walker.
In the neighboring yard, two children splash
In a plastic wading pool. A dog barks
From the end of a stump-tied knotted chain.
Within a week my father is moving
To a hospice. When the screaming children
Are called inside, the freed dog following,
There is only the silence of the dead
Who’ve eaten this fruit, Mrs. Cellander
And Mike Polkovich, who, my father says,
Helped himself from his side, not mentioning
The word thief, I think, because we would drive
Each fall to load bushels with black walnuts
Fresh fallen from trees that must have belonged
To somebody, shelling for days, staining
Our hands, work my father’s way of paying.
“A cosmological bomb billions of times more powerful than
the atomic bomb might be created.” Luis Sancho, cosmologist
From one chance in ten to one in fifty,
The odds one scientist offers, speaking
Like a bookie about the end of Earth
When the new superconductor begins
To operate at full power next year.
A fool’s bet, doubling down on prophecy,
But there’s been lower odds and we’re still here,
The world at DefCon 2, planes in the air,
Silos poised, those simultaneous keys
Locked and loaded, once, near our neighborhoods.
It’s exaggeration, right? That work-stop
Injunction will be dismissed when colleagues
Set the odds at state-lottery levels,
Ready to be romantic, approaching
The speed of light, cozying up so tight
To the Big Bang, first cousin to the gods,
Chain reactions? That news arrives on canes,
Old as mutual assured destruction.
Now, showers of heavy-mass particles
Might end us with ultra-dense quark matter.
Now, the vocabulary for theory
Is elastic, stretching like bright pink gum
On the fingers of a delighted child.
And yet, this week, after friends my age died
On successive days, I woke on the third
To a phone call I believed was one more,
As if a chain reaction had begun
The way it did when one molested boy,
Last month, testified, toppling the next boy
And the next and the next into four days
Of soft, public confession, creating
The calendar of a local man’s lust
On a Snyder County courtroom transcript.
And whether, at last, the seven billion
Of us become fodder for a black hole,
The wonder remains, those men and women
Waiting for the first light of computers
To show the hail of the hypothesized,
The high-speed pilgrimage to origin.
In theory. In trained imagination.
For they are on the brink of Genesis,
Hurtling back to the sea, forgetting air,
Sex, and the first impossible splitting
Until nothing is alive but the gods.