Back to Issue Forty-One

The Man at the Bus Stop



The man at the bus stop tells me about his friend from Mississippi
who once said, after hearing him sing: You’ve got a voice that makes flowers weep

and grandmas cry. When we say goodbye he thanks me, and I see in his eyes
fields of damp lilacs, mournful poppies bending over in the rain,

dolorous lilies with their white throats brimming over. His face reminds me
of my pap-pap’s, who used to call me Susie—might have, in his last year,

really thought it was my name. The way the man searches for words
makes me think of him too, of the time, especially, when I asked him

to say something in Italian and he rattled off a phrase without pause, eyes lighting up,
then struggled with the translation: You take two… two… then you get one… back,

eyebrows crinkling with the weight of memory’s absence, which by then
was no longer a gradual leak—more like a boat flooding with water

more quickly than he could bail it out. Why did I never record his voice?
I can’t recall it now, just like I can’t recall details from the stories he told

from the war—three distinct episodes that never shifted in shape or scale,
no matter how many other small things he forgot (grandma’s birthday, or the year,

or my name). And here I am on a bus now, smiling, thinking about the snake
that curled up to sleep in a trench with my pap-pap’s warm body

somewhere in France, of his friends waking him up, laughing. Somewhere in Germany
is the caption scrolled on the back of the only photo I have of him from the army,

which I stole when I was a teenager from an album hidden in the basement
inside a brown paper grocery bag. There were more photos, pages of them,

and when I brought them upstairs, my dad looked at them, startled;
he’d never seen them before. The encounter with the man has left me

noticing things, cataloging the day: particularly, the way the bus full of strangers
makes a music out of silence. When I get to my stop, I look at the driver,

thanking him, and in his eyes, too, I see lilacs, lilies; rain falling somewhere
in a country I’ve never been to and can’t remember.


Jessica Poli is the author of four chapbooks and co-editor of the collection More in Time: A Tribute to Ted Kooser (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). She is a PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, founder and editor of Birdfeast, and Assistant Poetry Editor of Prairie Schooner.

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