I Tie My Shoes

By George Bilgere

Featured art: ‘Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)’ by Vincent Van Gogh

I’m walking home late after work
along Meadowbrook Road when I realize
the guy half a block ahead of me
is Bill, from Religious Studies.
I recognize his bald spot, like a pale moon
in the dusk, and his kind of shuffling,
inward-gazing gait. Bill walks
like a pilgrim, measuring his stride
for the long journey, for the next step
in the hard progression of steps.

And while I like Bill, and in some ways
even admire him (he wrote something important
maybe a decade ago on Vatican II),
I slow down a little bit. I even stop
and pretend to tie my shoes, not wanting
to overtake him, because I’m afraid
of the thing he’s carrying, which is big
and invisible and grotesque, a burden
he’s lugging through the twilight, its weight
and unwieldiness slowing him down,
as it has for five years, since a drunk
killed his teenaged son, and Bill’s bald spot
dawned like a tonsure and his gait
grew tentative and unsure, and his gaze
turned inward as his body curled itself
around the enormous, boy-shaped
emptiness, and the question
he spends his days asking God.

And if I caught up with him
and we walked together through the dusk
he would ask me about my own son,
who is three, and the vast prospect of the future
onto which that number opens, involving
Little League and camp-outs and touch
football in the backyard would hang there,
terrible and ablaze in the autumn twilight,
and the two of us would have to slog
down Meadowbrook Road like penitents,
adding its awful weight to the weight of his son
on our backs, our shoulders, and so I fail
Bill, and stop and pretend to tie my shoes.

George Bilgere’s most recent collection of poetry is Imperial (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014). His work is familiar to NPR audiences through his frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. He has received grants and fellowships from the NEA, the Pushcart Foundation, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Ohio Arts Council. He lives and teaches in Cleveland, which has made him hardy and resolute.

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