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The Illiterate in New Mexico


After I failed calculus, my father,
A maintenance man, asked me if I knew
The story of how janitors were hired
In Alamogordo, New Mexico,
Whether the name of that town meant something
Or if I'd stopped thinking altogether
About anything but my present self.
"F," he hurled, "is your failure," and I said,
"The atomic bomb" before he shouted,
"If you couldn't read a word, you were hired,
An illiterate in New Mexico."

We were together in a restaurant.
I was as old, within days, as the bomb
And was supposed to become a doctor,
Not clean up after their accomplishments,
Somebody who'd never know their secrets,
A failure sweeping up in ignorance.
All I'd ever be was a patient; all
I'd be able to do was listen while
The way my life would close was decided,
An illiterate in New Mexico.

The scientists, he said, were creating
The end of the world while those janitors,
Excluded from their secrets, emptied trash.
Lips moving, he calculated a tip
Before sliding three quarters and two dimes
Under his plate, waiting for me to stand.
Leaving my grades open on the table
Because I needed to understand that
Anyone, even a goddamned busboy,
Could recognize I was as helpless as
The illiterate in New Mexico.


Gary Fincke

Alaska Quarterly Review

Spring & Summer 2013


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