(Salvage, a former newsprint literary journal from Troy, New York, published this poem in 2005.)
The Five O’Clock Log
— Woodstock, Catskills
Behind the ice cream parlor closed for winter
lived Alvin, the Astrologer, whom I visited
while searching for my own cabin to escape
City life. Army blankets hung inside his door
like theater curtains to retain the stove heat.
Stretched on a couch, he chuckled at reruns
of “Married…With Children” on a snowy TV.
“It’s a Sagittarian show,” he said, gifting me
with an incense packet for “The Horseman”
that warned me not to be distracted by wealth.
Somehow he’d known my sign without asking.
A grandfather hippie who’d taken in runaways,
he was lonely for company, I’d been told,
especially if I played chess. He kept a cane
knobby as a root by his knee, but didn’t stand up
except to fiddle with the coat-hanger antenna.
“I missed it the first time around, so ‘Married’
isn’t a rerun to me,” he said. “It’s funny, & funny
is what keeps me alive now I’m too old to be pretty.”
But laughter triggered coughing attacks, the price
for cigarettes he hand-rolled tight as Camels.
His fits were so fierce I feared he might shake
off the last of his white fluffy hairs. Done,
he sent me out to the deli for a fresh pouch
of tobacco. I didn’t mind. Almost 39, I wanted
a new life in which buying such a simple gift
counted for something. Fired, divorced, stuck in
a walk-up with a view of a YMCA shower room
window cracked open to young men soaping
their groins, while I still woke up to my coffee,
I knew the moutains had to offer something better.
I chose the frying pan with the fewest scratches
to stir up hamburger scramble. Alvin’s barrel table
smelled faintly of pickles. “You’re not a bad cook,”
he said, “but you’ll get a lot better in your cabin.
In Manhattan everyone’s spoiled by takeout.”
From the fridge top, I gathered chess pieces,
then laid the checkerboard oilcloth on the table.
I hadn’t played much since learning the game
from an Eighth grade math teacher, nor did I
have beginner’s luck now. Alvin checkmated me
in less than a dozen moves the first two games.
For the finale, I concentrated hard to extend him
into a third cigarette & listened to his story.
In a refurbished bread truck he traveled to
Rainbow Gatherings & Renaissance Faires,
reading tarot & helping druggies come down
from bad trips. “I haven’t seen it all,” he said.
“But I’ve seen enough. The world is yours now.”
Before climbing up to the sleeping bag loft,
I obeyed Alvin’s command to stand three logs
by the stove. “When you have a cabin,” he said
from his couch, lying under a homemade quilt
of grandfather merlins on rocking chair moons,
“you’ll learn about the five o’clock log.” Before dawn,
country people woke up to add wood to the coals,
warming their cabins for breakfast at seven.
“The dreams you wake up to at five,” he said,
“are the dreams most likely to come true.”