city bus stops eat poets for breakfast

he’s there everyday
at least every day that i'm there
slumped like a drawn out "s"
on the bus stop bench
at the end of industry
at the end of it all
and jesus does he stink

not like you’d think
not like body odor
or waste
not like decay
but like cherry disinfectant
porn shop disinfectant
prison disinfectant
military issue
latrine disinfectant
the worst of it
the low places
the desperate places
and the artificial sweet
we pray will mask it

i sit there beside him
smoking my cigarettes
and scribbling
buds in my ears
trying hard to look hard
to stare straight
as if i don’t see

and that’s when i see her
coming from a long way off
and i think she’s a child
in pretty, bright dress
but there's something off
something bent and shuffling in her gait
she’s carrying a paper sack
full of dying flowers in one hand
and a dirty canvas purse in the other
and i begin to pray,
“this cannot be a child,
this cannot be a child,
please, don't let this be a child.”
a few feet from me she falls

and i think,
“she'll get up,
she'll get up.”
but she doesn't

she’s dropped her bag and purse
there are dry petals all over the sidewalk
and she’s on her hands and knees
her head lowered to the ground
swaying from side to side
and there are people walking around her
crushing the petals into the concrete

for some reason
i think of emaciated wildebeest
during the dry season
of thin streams of water
of crocodile eyes like black pebbles
and slow motion death

so i get up
even though i don’t want to
even though i’m still trying hard
to look hard
as if i don’t see
and i take her arm
bundle of knotted twigs
and look up and away
as she finds her feet
sweep the petals back in the bag
and hold out her things
when she looks up at me
i commit the sin of eye contact

there is something hungry in her face
something sad and broken and devouring
in her pale blue eyes
in the mustache above her lip
in her strange weather-worn skin
smooth on her cheeks and forehead,
creased and cracked
around her eyes and mouth
the damage done
in the places we take in the world
i don't dare look at her hands
not fear exactly
that’s long gone
but something frantic
flailing in waves
around her
as she mumbles something
like thanks
or an apology
before taking her seat beside the slouching man

they're behind me
hidden in the bus stop enclosure
i can hear them talking
over the music in my ears
(it’s the first and the last
time i’ll ever hear him speak)
but i can't understand what they're saying

then she’s beside me
asking, “how far to euclide?”
and i point, “a few blocks up.”
This time i can’t bring myself
to look directly at her
it’s one time too many already

instead i stare at her shoes
feet swimming in heels
a few sizes too big
they are bleeding

i dig my nails
into my palm
and watch
the traffic
pour up
and down
the street

when the bus comes
i can’t get on fast enough
but still can’t help
glancing out the window
before we pull away
it’s the scrivener in me
the voyeur
the disease of my eyes   

and there he is,
as always,
slouched, unmoving
eyes wide and empty
but she’s gone
her purse and bag of flowers
on the bench beside him

and all i can think is
one day they’ll find my bike
tethered to a bus stop enclosure
my bus pass
and backpack
filled with books and crumbled papers
beneath the bench

one day the bus won’t come
and this place will swallow me whole