When you are seven years old,
lying in the back of a station wagon
while your parents play night tennis;
when the knowledge that you are going
to die one day comes through
the rallies, players’ voices,
and songs from a dashboard radio
left on like an audible night light;
you listen hard to the faultless
workings of your life: your heartbeat
mufled under a blanket; your breath,
painting cone-shaped plumes on the glass.
You trade sleep for the ache
of a nameless concept, and feel
the margins of your days begin to close.
You are not prepared for this.
You leave the car and look beyond
the capped, swinging court lights,
blurred by an attendant rain of moths
and flying ants, and you search
the sky for meaning. Linking stars
and smears of low, transparent cloud,
you find a wound in the side
of an overripe fig; a lizard,
its position on a stone betrayed
only when it blinks. But then
a tennis ball clears the fence,
a player laughs, and your parents return,
smelling of sweat and cigarettes.
When they ask why you’re up so late;
what you’re doing outside the car;
you’ve not the words for what you know.
On the way home, you lie down
and stare at the backs of their heads,
which are dark, then silver
in the lights of an overtaking lorry.
Your father turns the radio off.
Your mother turns to look at him.
They do not speak. You touch yourself
under the blanket, carefully,
and forget about death for awhile.
When the backs of their heads
flare again, you promise yourself
you’ll remember that moment;
and you do, thirtytwo years later,
sitting up in bed, when your wife’s face
is lit by a car pulling into the drive.
In the dark again, you sense her
glance at you. The glance returned,
you ask if she remembers
how old she was, or what she was doing
when her first thoughts of death arrived.
When she doesn’t answer, you say
Star, fig, lizard, and wait for the lights
of another car to print
the shadows of your heads on the wall
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