The Men Who Stand the Highway Exits
Always the cardboard sign, Will Work or God Bless or Mercy,
their faces ruddy, chapped with the red dirt of the Southland,they stand with their canvas packs at their feet. Mornings they
come forth, out from the straight pines, matted damp with earth,and take their place at the exits. They shuffle up the lines of us
through rubble of broken taillights, old winter salt, ash of thedistant forest fires; they drag their boots by us each exit,
We Who Have No Work to Give. We are told they areincreasing in number, though there is no clear cause, the long
ago extinction of hitchhiking, newspapers, or payphones.We are told they know not of each other though they often sport
the medals and tassels of Another Time, the Forgotten Wars.And there is no organization among them and nothing to be done
but endure their stares. Help or How Many Times Must I SwearOff the Drink? or Lord or some with such a long story scrawled
across the cardboard, impossible to read in the time it takes to exit.We have heard that tourism has fallen off, though the highway
medians have been sown with wildflowers—mountain garland,rabbit tobacco, firewheels, wild golden glow, blue sailor.
We are told these men break the lull of the highway, the humof our commutes. Always the canvas packs at their feet. Always
the ritual of cardboard, soft, folded down in fours,unfolded with each new line of cars—Water or Laid Bare I Come to You
or simply Amen. And yet the lot of them are not connected. Thoughno exit is now unmanned, they will let us pass; though they come
so close to our windows, they will let us pass; though we read nottheir signs, We Who Have No Work to Give, they will let us pass.
Though they speak not, they are relentless, there at every last exit,walking against the currents of traffic. Dear God Bring the Doom.
The ritual of cardboard in the time it takes to exit. Folded open.The Men Who Stand the Highway Exits have no connection,
though they are suited in fatigues, red with the dirt of the Southland,as if once buried; they are stiff with their fatigues, cargo pockets
weighted heavy with what we are told are copper pennies,which no store will any more accept, which are worthless,
save but for to kiss, to kiss and throw far into the fountains.
Copyright © 2018 by Gretchen Steele Pratt
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
Gretchen Steele Pratt is the author of One Island (Anhinga Press) and has work appearing or forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Ecotone, Fairy Tale Review, and the Southern Review. She lives in Matthews, North Carolina, with her husband and two daughters and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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