Something You Can Count On
I had, once, a Captain Midnight ring
that told the weather, or so they said.
Frankly, I don’t remember Captain Midnight,
didn’t listen to him much.
Don’t know what made him special,
what made him Captain Midnight, for that matter.
But I didn’t need to, knew in my 1947 heart of hearts
he couldn’t hold a fist or pistol to Sergeant Preston,
the great Tom Mix or, most enduring of them all,
Jack Armstrong and his faithful sidekick Billy,
by no unmeaningful coincidence my namesake.
Problem was, whenever Billy spoke, tried to warn
the older man of masked enemies behind a door,
a flash flood or a gaping pit they were headed toward,
Jack hushed him. “Quiet, Billy,” he would warn,
in mild but unmistakable reproach,
“there’s no time for that now.”
And somehow, despite the villains, the torrent and abyss,
indifferent to the warnings, he prevailed.
I knew what Billy knew, spent all those years
in chastened silence to the terrors just ahead:
another neighborhood or town, a class of strangers,
repetition of my father’s life, stammering salesman
who sold us all to his timidity and fear
of everyone not us.
So though I lived and died with Jack,
I bought from Captain Midnight, who I knew,
knowing nothing else about him, would let me speak.
All it took was fifty cents, saved two months
from my allowance, and six vacuum sealant tops
from jars of Ovaltine, whose taste I loathed
but suffered for the prize of prophecy,
the knowledge, as I sat indoors, watching
hapless weathermen on CBS or NBC
grope and fumble for what a glance
at my chameleon ring would tell me.
The seal, in small but bold black print,
repeated “Ovaltine” so prolifically you knew they felt,
despite that burnt unsweetened taste,
no shame in who they were. Wisdom here,
slicing carefully around the rim to preserve each name,
rare and precious as the ring.
Pink in balmy weather, blue in bad,
and you could watch it change before your
startled eyes, the smooth voice said,
as low clouds darkened,
winds blew papers onto drivers’ glass,
and the bluely-promised rains rained fiercely down.
Scarcely three weeks later than the promised time,
the ring arrived. Proof, if it were needed,
there was a god, perhaps because you
never tuned him in, you could believe.
Split for adjustability,
as my parents, learning slowly, would,
the ring fit every finger, overlapped
behind my own like hands at prayer.
Its tightness clasped and comforted:
one anchoring possession I would not lose.
The ring was pink when it arrived and pink,
through every snow storm, frost and hurricane,
it stayed. I loved that ring.
I was watching films,
most of whose stars and dimmer lights
had become mere ghosts, images
no realer than the beam of dusty light
between the wheezing projector and the screen.
They were familiar: Grayson and Lawford,
Kelly, O’Connor and Sinatra,
who seemed invincible back then,
and Stanley Donen,
who had come to this festival
of receding simplicity and joy
was on stage crying.
He was watching Kelly, splashing
in the artificial rain, and he was crying.
It seemed simple, ordinary,
one more abandoned mourner
weeping for the dead.
But they were my childhood,
youth and middle age, and someone
had forgotten to bury them.
Someone hoarding anger
had not released them to the skies.
Someone unbending or neglectful
had laid no stone on loosely shoveled graves,
and they were floating free,
dancing where we could not look away.
They were knotted strings on fingers
we could not untie, phoned messages
left at nine, eighteen, and thirty four
we could not erase.
Even now, lifting the receiver,
they are there.
I watched, weeks later,
the Academy Awards, where Donen,
honored for a lifetime of achievement
in this world of ghosts,
did a slow soft shoe at eighty,
pressed the statue to his cheek
and sang, “Heaven, I’m in heaven,
and my heart beats so
that I can hardly speak.”
Me too, almost, me either.
The sky’s half light, half dark,
and I am its baby, its vacationer,
all subscriptions canceled, all lines cut,
hands behind my head and drifting.
The wind blows in one direction only.
Sisyphus with resined palms and fingers,
it does not let go.
one imagines eyes shut softly,
a smile of earned achievement looking back.
But the lights are dimming here,
the credits pass, and I have found my seat
in the weatherless season of the ghosts.
I can see them, scattered
between the dipper and the bear:
Grant and Hepburn, Rogers and Astaire,
Hayworth, Gable and Monroe,
beautiful and flawless in their bloom.
Surely this is heaven, what is meant
by resurrection, the purified persistence
of the salvaged soul, what awaits the faithful
when the trumpet sounds, the golden ladder drops,
and we are called.
Surely God is merciful,
his great white screen alive with spirits
whittled to a small perfection in the dark.
Even the watchers may be watched,
by you just now,
their lines conjured from within like these,
or stolen from the throats of other ghosts
they long and are terrified to be.
In the dark, alone, we are all
at the mercy of the wheezing,
dusty band of light, and not just there.
On the beach next summer
look above the sea.
Is it not your father, pocked skin
airbrushed to a youthful glow,
holding your hand the only time you can recall,
crossing the sand to where the waves
fold like memories upon themselves and fall?
His sea-gray eyes: are they not fixed
on Laughton on the Bounty at full sail,
or Fairbanks swinging bravely from the mast
as sea wind blows as sea wind never blows
through hair like midnight on the risen waves,
those magnificent teeth, those watery gray eyes,
What I really loved
about fifties rock ‘n’ roll
were the cufflinks.
How the four black
in lustrous pearl gray suits
and fuchsia ties
would angle side to side,
chanting doo wapa doo
while the lead voice wailed,
then extend one arm
till stiff cuffs slid
like furtive ivory
from their sheaths,
and with practiced thumb and finger
gently tug and squeeze
those lucent silver tears
till ours welled up
and we were sure
that strapless cream-skinned blond
a few aisles down
was staring straight ahead because,
she’d fall too hopelessly in love
if she looked back.
About Bill Freedman
Bill Freedman has published poetry in APR, The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, The Quarterly, The International Quarterly, Dalhousie Review, The Nation and elsewhere. A book of his poems, Being Them All, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2005. Another collection, Some Can, was published, also by Ginninderra, in 2009.