The Courtesy

(for Saul Chessler, 1953-1974)

I walked from my house down Coolidge Street last night
And air, beginning movement in the trees,
Shook down a hushing from the branches.
On either side of me the houses
Like solid shadow, blocks of silence
In the violet light, so dim without dimming.
And I saw you, Saul, my old friend, waiting
For me at the corner where our two streets met.

I wanted to ask you what it was like to die
But you said first, as if you didn’t want to tell me,
‘The doctors made me better. We can run again.’
You ran behind me (the way you always did),
Your slow strides lunging; though they never could keep up
This time they stayed right there at my heels.
Turning, I saw one pocket inside out
Clapping on your coat front like a white hand.
Your breath quickened, scrawled in the chilling air
Like mine, and vanishing. We ran on a field of snow.
Our footsteps pattered the smooth crust,
Each one feeling like it might break through.
Around us the pure white kindled under violet.

And we returned by train. Sitting next to you,
Staring through the window, I saw your body
Lying like a dark slash in the snow,
Your arms flung up, your legs crossed,
Even as I heard you next to me
Still struggling to catch your breath. You were just
Pretending to be alive—remembering to breathe.
Lumbering under living weight, saying you were cured,
Your flushed cheeks—all just to put me at my ease,
Afraid that your death might embarrass me, even then
Saul, you were more a friend to me than you were dead.
But in my mind the question was still circling:
What is it like to die? But how could I catch you
In a lie which you intended as a kindness?
Beside you on the train, hurtling back
Into the strange familiarity of Coolidge Street,
Remaining silent, I returned the courtesy.

Alan Shapiro, “The Courtesy” from The Courtesy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983). Copyright © 1983 by Alan Shapiro. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Selected Poems 1974-1996 (The University of Chicago Press, 2000)
More Poems by Alan R. Shapiro