Monday, April 6, 2009

The Long Lines of Tradition

An elderly woman awakens like clockwork
every Sunday morning, keeping her thoughts
attenuated to religious piety and God. A shawl
cowls her trimmed gray locks with a black
aura, matching the ankle length dress
loosely adorning her fragile frame. She grasps
her black, patent leather purse which matches
the 3-inch heeled, open toed shoes carrying
her frame over to the nightstand where
a Catholic missal sits on the white, adorning,
macramé doily with a simple, black beaded,
rosary beside the night, reading lamp.
Shriveling, furrowing, wrinkled fingers
with arthritis-knotted knuckles grasp
the missal and rosary, check the purse
for car keys and her two crisp, new dollar
bills for the collection plate. Her short,
angular legs churn over the carpet,
whisking her out the door and into
the already idling car, the engine warmed.

Motoring down her sleepy, elm-lined,
residential lane, she ignores the man
walking along the sidewalk, shuffling
feet that have grown tired of trudging
the same path, twice daily. He sleeps
in a ravine just beyond the asphalt's
dead end, hidden among tall grasses,
his camouflage colored tarp preventing
the morning dew from painting his
broken body's form wetly before dawn.
The man sloughs down the sidewalk,
the weight of youthful expectations
and prime time accomplishments
humps his shoulders with the laconic
portrait of late-middle-aged
accusations hurled like darts
in the insinuating stares pointedly
stabbing him on nearly every street
corner. Nonetheless, the final odor
of his rotting, fecal pride arises
from the stench of the last threads
of clothing he owns - stylish and neat
to the end, cleanly shaven, hands
and face washed, but the unkempt,
few strands of hair flying haphazardly
in the cold morning wind betray
the impression he seeks to portray.

She sees him every Sunday morning
on her way to church, but her mind
is full of her devotional prayers, so
she never stops, never offers the man
a ride, never shares a kind word,
never offers a meager few pennies.

Every street corner the lady passes,
it seems, lays claim to another
social misfit, cast away by society,
crumpled up and thrown, like waded-up
litter, strewn into the curbs of American
streets, glimmering only for the youthful,
upwardly mobile, success stories of today,
soon to be tomorrow's sacrificial casualties.
She scantly casts her eyes on any
of the throng pleading for alms. No,
instead, she parks her car on the asphalt,
the church parking lot, spaces reserved
for only the chosen few parishioners.

Inside, she joins the others of the flock
standing, sitting, kneeling, responding
vocally, dropping money into the offering
plate, each at the appointed instant
during the service, following the long lines
of tradition, souls forming an eternal
queue, paying for their God's indulgence
and permission to enter heaven. The
priest takes his few moments to preach
a sermon on the meaning of charity; his
meaning requires little of the parishioners,
no daily acts of kindness, no offering
of alms to the poor, no occasions
of feeding the hungry. No, the priest
preaches the counsel of donations
to the church, who will do all the good
deeds for the parishioners on their behalf.

After the service, the flock file out
in formation from the edifice, a building
made from the same materials as any
other, stone and brick and wood and
steel, and the sweat of honest, working
class laborers. The woman's sight fixes
with such intense focus, and so burning
of a determined will to live piously
and follow the priest's commandments,
that she cannot see the face
of her long lost brother shines
from behind the eyes of the man who walks
down her street and who, even at that
moment, holds out an empty hat as she
drifts right by him, walking in perfect step
with the dispersing congregation
after the service - the man's hat
as empty as ever, his heart growing
just a little more broken each week.

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