Skip to main content

Shells and Strings

Robert Levine has self-published two books of poetry. He's currently working on a long poem about his hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland.

Jeff Williams waited, skateboard in hand,

at the bus stop beside the mall near the corner

of Annapolis and Riverdale Roads

the lone time I visited him. We threaded the other end

of the street he sauntered to New Carrollton Station for our

sally into D.C.—past Zayre’s department store’s

gray brick back, the long buff-painted apartment agglomerations,

the parking lots iridescent with haloes of motor oil

like the sheen on a starling’s black wings.

The street seemed bereft of children for July.

“There’s the crack truck,” Jeff snapped with Good Humor’s

electronic clarion jingle ringing farther down.


Jeff skated patiently in pace with my unaided feet.

He explained he had quit Greenpeace:

after canvassing late, he’d get back past

midnight, need time to unwind, and by then felt

too drained to write. I bemoaned my dearth

of summer work, the guilt of sitting each day at home

in hard times eating my father’s food.

“I know all about the guilt,” he avouched. “Believe me.”

His place had walls bare but white as eggshells;

Jeff’s mother kept out of sight, but projected her

presence through the stink and sizzle of cooking garlic.

“My dad’s been calling a lot,” he offhanded,

“wanting to see me, go fishing together,

do all that male bonding nonsense.”

Silent, I envied him his problem.

He showed me his novel about a clairvoyant

solving murders by touching the victim to feel

the death in himself, and his identically gifted twin

who kills strangers he meets to save them

from wretched futures. He spun more storylines out of reverie—

a city within a glass dome underwater

after the greenhouse effect melted the ice caps,

a star flashing kaleidoscope colors that an astronomer

discovers is a pinhole leaking a peak at

Heaven’s euphoria—and I pored over his ode

to flying over the roofs on the Metro’s raised track

behind this home of his as we had last autumn before

sinking under the subway’s vaulted cement ceiling.


Jeff afforded the favor of free rein on his

computer to type and print my prose poem

likening the artist to an oyster turning

the grit sticking in him into beauty

for the collecting: I wanted to see my words glow,

hear the softer tapping of the springier keys.

He said he dreamed of living “somewhere cold and dark,

like Canada,” in a castle; “And you could publish

a literary magazine there,” I alluded to where we met.

He gibed, “Why would I want to do that?”


On my way out, I picked up the thread

of our talk on the street and related

that I spent my overabundance of unwaged hours sharpening

essays, articles for the News Review, poems,

joking, “I’m the hardest-working man in literature.”

“It doesn’t really seem like work,” Jeff shrugged—

I don’t know how well my face disguised dismay.

The bus I boarded homeward in a few minutes removed me

to hectic months of a new school term

without hearing from him, and when I called

during Thanksgiving break and took him to task,

Jeff jabbing back, “What’s wrong with your fingers?”;

to Jeff majoring in English at Howard

mostly for the mailroom job allotted,

while later I shuffled three part-times for tuition and rent;

to biding time to absorb and probe my craft’s axioms,

while Jeff shopped his novel to agents

“so I don’t have to get a degree I don’t need.”

By my move to Boston, the words and deeds connecting

to Jeff I wound onto myself had slackened, unraveled until

I couldn’t even feel them sliding away behind.

© 2019 Robert Levine

Related Articles