Bath

She mops a washcloth down his spine and scrubs
until his bones glow with the inner light of porcelain
and when his Haloed hair bursts forth into foam
he holds his nose and dunks beneath the soapy gloom
ears flooding with signals
the pipes transmit like microphones.

The boy can hear another city, the one below
where wind coils when it isn’t howling,
one can hear Purgatory boil
up through the manholes, a river flushing souls
into the underworld, tomorrow’s news
bawled at the crossroad of subway and sewer.

If he were accidentally to swallow here
the water would taste like silver
off a dead man’s eyes. Upstairs,
the mute émigré waitress he secretly
adores sings naked in the shower,
the newlyweds from Mexico

rage about dinero, next door
a newborn wails like a Black Maria,
while in a hidden room, a crazy old man
won’t stop repeating “the goddamn, the goddman!”
And the boy comes up for air,
eyes burning, rinsed hair silky, his hands
wrinkled, Busha says, as prunes.

Overhead, the bare bulb fogs with steam.
She jerks the plug, the drain
gulps a vortex of gray bathwater.
It’s time to rinse before it sucks him down,
to stand calf-deep, lacquered with Ivory,
smoldering before a faucet that trickles

a cool stream at which Busha washes him
first gently in front and then behind
in a way that no one else will ever wash him.
The moon, too, must be fogged above
misted lamps that bleed into reflections
on the marbled pane.

He swipes abstractions in the sweat,
finger painting night
while Busha towels his hair
as if reviving a drowned sailor
the sea has graciously returned.
Don’t worry, Busha, your grandson is clean

for Saturday night:
ears, navel, nails, inspected,
teeth unstained, cleansed as baptism
leaves the soul, pure enough to sleep—
as you instruct him—with the angels,
cleaner than he’ll ever be again.


“Bath” from Streets in Their Own Ink by Stuart Dybek. Copyright 2004 by Stuart Dybek. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com
Source: Streets in Their Own Ink (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2006)
More Poems by Stuart Dybek