Just outside of town,
a little way beyond
the newly blooming,
late forties suburbs,
where farmland surrounds the road,
my parents drive to Boots & Saddles,
the country western bar
for an end of the day drink
with Irene and Cliff.
I have been here before--
the familiar neon sign blinking,
the hitching post,
the actual saddle over the door,
the cow skull and the horseshoes
on the wall.
My father picks me up and sits me
on the bar where I feel more
secure than on the slippery
which seem like tall towers
from which I fear to fall.
Cigarette smoke tints the air
blue-grey, the murmur
of conversation fills the room--
the women talking together
about the men and the men
laying out big plans.
At one end of the bar two guys
slam dice cups down hard
in a game of liar's poker.
My big moment arrives when
they order for me,
an ice-cold bottle of Nehi Orange,
and life is sweet, I swing my feet
from the lip of the bar.
On the jukebox the Weavers
sing “Good Night Irene.”
Cliff plays it for my grandmother,
still romancing her in his Texas way.
She's hard-headed and practical,
but she likes it anyway.
And from my perch
on the bartop I watch them
two-stepping on the dancefloor,
around and around real slow
in the orange Nehi glow.
A large praying mantis crouches
On the worn, weathered wood
Of the fort undisturbed
By the people peering
From a respectful distance.
The intricate insect, motionless,
Sunning on the doorjamb,
Presides there, a tutelary spirit
Guarding the threshold.
Regal in bearing,
Like a living hieroglyph,
She turns her pyramidal head,
With its outsized glittering eyes
And scans without alarm,
The human audience.
Like a creature from space
Just touched down,
She seems a messenger
From the stars,
An alien life-form,
As we must be for her,
Yet, a denizen of our world too.
What was the message
For the human spectators
Gathered in a circle?
Was a mystery offered us
In the raised limbs?
We returned her gesture
And passed with her blessing
Through the door.
My father's voice in the predawn dark,
his hand on my shoulder as he shakes
me awake in the early morning chill.
I follow him outside, and join
my mother and sister behind the house,
where we huddle, facing east, yawning.
Obviously there is something
that he wants us to see but won't
say what it is, mysteriously.
A pale glow backlights the distant peaks,
at this hour the Central Valley sky
is clear of the usual haze.
The world is hushed like a breath
taken in expectation before
an insufflation ignites the sun,
which will open like a fan of flame.
This early, voices and sounds are muffled,
the fowls refuse to remove their beaks
from the warm down of their wings,
as they amble sideways, away from us,
the amber eyes, watchful.
Cool and sharp, the odor of oranges
fallen from the trees, rises
from the unkempt weeds wet with dew,
soaking our ankles and feet.
Once a backyard garden orchard,
we, the current tenants, neglect it now
and let it run as it will, untended.
Ignoring our grumbling, my father checks
his watch and directs us to look
southeast, then begins his countdown--
at zero, the sky behind the Sierras
suddenly lit up like a photo flashbulb
going off, a brilliant instant, then dark.
My father says “that was
six hundred miles away!”
The atomic testing grounds'
above ground test
went off as planned,
fusing into glass the desert sand.
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