j. l. conrad

Prologue, Or First Things Last

When I woke last night, I thought myself home again, the house with its creaking
floorboards, the children asleep in the next room. Voices in the hall, the slow drop
of water from the roofline, the hustle of geese taking off from the lake. We have
been lucky although we do not name it.

In winter, trucks drove out onto the ice, people walked one side to the other, dogs
chased their shadows. We recognized no limits to our plans, even those of us whose
bodies would soon take us under. We found ourselves infected with a brand of
gallows humor that did not know when to stop.

For a time, some were able to ply their trades without fear of reprisal. Most could be
trusted to do the right thing, neighbor not yet turning on neighbor. In those days we
were not afraid to touch strangers. One could still shuttle freely between here and
here and there if one carried the right papers.

When the sirens went off, some walked to their balconies and gazed at the ocean, its
far horizon. Most discovered that they wanted to be somewhere else.

After the danger had passed, we emerged blinking in the great light that surrounded
us. All of our belongings in boxes with nowhere to go. No one had heard of leaving
in the middle of one’s obligations. Sun slid its fingers across the railing, finding a
handhold. It was becoming clear that our place was to stay.

I found that it was best not to speak of my fears. At that time we still had bright
lights above a restaurant table, a packed room suitcase whatever. The threat looming,
as always. Wheels set in motion decades earlier, the wheel with its drowned
man/woman/child. The house with its windows shut tight.

For some organs to heal, it takes months if not years. When we finally made it to the
coast, the sea was a deep blue lashed with waves. No one in sight of the grand hotels
and retirement homes. We took sanctuary where it was offered. The pink sunset a
backdrop to it all, I considered how best to find my way back.

Once our legs could carry us across a country, across county lines. There was white
powder mailed in glass bottles that could shut down an entire wing of government,
while a man selling DVDs on a blanket outside the gas station could be gunned
down while others stood recording the moment on handheld electronic devices.

We learned how the past could follow us.

We knew how to kill bees but not save them.

We had animals to do our bidding, and let’s not forget those we tracked through
grasslands for lack of anything better to do. We thought we’d discovered all of the
organs in the human body but then found new ones that could explain the spread of
cancer. Each morning, the windows wore a fine scrim of water.

Will you tell me how it ends?

We walked in a procession of others, a wedge of people traversing the park. It was
sunset, and a feather had attached itself to the leg of someone I knew once but had
lost, walking ahead. I held the hand of my younger son as we stayed between the
white lines that indicated safe passage from one side of the street to the other.

The street felt like a river between. The dream of crossing over in some afterlife.

We had brought nothing with us, but the air wrapped us warm as sleeves, and the
procession showed no sign of slowing down.

Fires burned on the coasts, pushed families to shelter at hotels and resorts. For
months after, the hills bore scars, the mountains taking the brunt of the flames.

We let fresh air into our homes through open windows, saw doctors for our various
ailments. We stretched our bodies in high-ceilinged rooms, carried rolled-up mats in
improbable colors: terracotta, lemon yellow, lavender, the blue of spun sugar.
Carpets like grass padded our houses releasing a stew of toxic gases. We drove for
miles and centuries of miles, stopping to eat at restaurants that spanned the freeway,
traffic flowing beneath our feet. We trusted the signs to tell us what lay at each
juncture. We trusted things to remain the same, to stay where we’d left them.

Our cities laid out along the coastlines, a chain of freeways between them, traffic
hitching its way between on-ramps. We relied on the filling stations to refill
themselves, as if from some reservoir deep underground. We had seats to keep
children safe in the case of a crash, chest clips to be placed over their hearts.

We bought butter carved in the shape of lambs that could be found in stores that
continued to replenish themselves. We believed that these would continue to offer
strawberries and fish caught far out at sea where no garbage patch the size of our
largest state could touch them.

It was true that we noticed graveyards less often then, that we passed roadside
memorials with hardly a glance.

Trees raised their open questions, while streetlights spangled the median with light.

We could be forgiven for thinking the ribbons of highway would continue to unfurl,
that the days of treacherous journeys lay behind us, that life would no longer require
us to bury our dead along the byways. We could be forgiven for shaking our heads,
for calling up troops to seal the borders. Spring came to see us then backtracked.

I invited ______ into the room to sit in the place I had just vacated. The door blew
open, remained that way for a time, then closed. This story is true, and by true I
mean that it happened. A sound like a rifle being fired.

In that time, one could go out and come back as if nothing had changed. We argued
among ourselves about nature of God, the spirit and how it comes knocking. We
worked for long hours assembling lists of books.

In the last days the leaves poured down, the north woods swimming in beetles.

In the last days the bees took to their hives, and the blossoms stunned them.

The wrong things made us angry.

Something irreversible had already begun.

There is future forgiveness to extend. Foregiveness.

Now, there isn’t much left of the rations. The water cask has sprung a leak, while the
springhouse renews itself, the inside a dark pocket in the afternoon. We think to
traverse the frontier. We are not made for that sort of deprivation, that tightening of
belts. The dream said that 97 percent of all the meals that have ever been eaten have
been eaten already, and I have so many questions.

It turned out we were right to button our lips, to keep things under wraps. And
when the shoe fell it sounded exactly like a body hitting the floor. We wanted to live
out our lives in peace—didn’t everyone? Not the mercenaries, as it turned out.

For a time we dressed children in plastic costumes with nylon masks. We did not
mind them asking for handouts, knocking on door after door, the ones with porch
lights on. We waxed our lips to protect them from cold, purchased complicated
unguents for our compromised skin. Warm water fell at a soft slant from the silver
_______ above. We did not know the degree to which we had already given up.

It was a time when one could buy a coat when one had need of it, purple
if one wanted, black if not. The stores carried rainbow ribbons and soft candies in the
shape of rabbits, sugared over in glittery yellow.

Later we wondered how we failed to read the signs: the herd of antelope felled on
the saiga, the slump into which trees jumbled themselves with a crack and lurch,
earth opening a seam, unstitching the tundra, the gash visible from space.

Once we walked without gravity,

only a suit of impermeable fabric,

between us and the vastness.


J. L. Conrad‘s first full-length collection of poems, A Cartography Of Birds, was published by Louisiana State University Press (2002). Conrad’s chapbook Not If But When won Salt Hill’s third annual Dead Lake Chapbook Competition and was published in 2016. Conrad’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleaides, Salamander, H_NGM_N, Jellyfish, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Laurel Review, Mid-American Review, Birdfeast, and others.