Joe Bell kept a whiskey bar near 86th and 3rd.
Sixty years since she came by, his precious bird.
Skinny girl, so fast and straight, to check for messages,
A little peck, and big Joe Bell would fall to pieces.
In a room out back Joe stuffed the letters as they came,
Overflowing milk-crate full of letters with her name.
Every one by different hand, all shaky, all from men
Joe wants to burn the lot, but just can’t do it to them.
One eye on his customers, the other out for her
A straight-backed scrappy girl in trademark black, perhaps a fur;
Peering over trendy shades through saloon’s stained-glass doors.
Joe sees her all the time; just pieces, never more.
Today, he sees another face from summers way back then,
Nineteen-fifty-something, when they were still young men.
Vision, milky now, too old to direct camera’s view,
Mister Yunioshi comes right in and takes a pew.
Yuni smiles, says ‘Hello Joe, let me have a Sidecar.”
Then from his pocket a yellowed photo drops on the bar.
Over-handled, edges worn, the picture’s faint and dim
“Bet you never guess, Joe Bell, where Yunioshi been?”
Joe Bell lifts it from the bar, sees writing on the back
‘1956’ it reads, with ‘Africa’ in black.
Staring, there’s her face upon some tribal effigy,
What complex thoughts drove simple hands to carve so lovingly?
“Thought you dead,” says big Joe Bell, but Yunioshi’s gone,
Downed his drink, pushed out the door, another old man done.
Joe can’t look, folds it in half, and takes a walk out back
Finds the dusty crate and drops the photo on the stack.
Pauses now, he hefts it’s weight, “Their burden’s also mine.
All these men their lives half-lived to see her one last time.”
Rubs his eyes. “I had my chance, was too afraid to speak;
Like a fool I threw some near-dead flowers at her feet.”
Joe Bell kept a whiskey bar near 86th and 3rd
Kept it open sixty years, though nothing else was heard.
Kai Eriksson, 2017