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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 9, Number 4, December 2015


Glenn G. Coats
Prospect, Virginia, USA

By the Banks of Saint Johns

I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly

              —Joni Mitchell

It is autumn but the air remains hot and sticky like summer. I wait until there are shadows along the path then run beside the river. The air has the stench of paper mills and fish. I keep my pace steady except when I pump my arms in and out—sprinting for short distances. When my ankles ache and I am gasping for breath, I stop for a time, wipe the sweat from my face, rest, before moving on.

The path is dark when I spot the dog in front of me, black with a white muzzle. The dog is shaking. I stroke his head and he leans into me, nose hot to the touch. I gather him up in my arms and walk back across the campus. There are radio songs in the air. I can hear Arthur Brown, “I am the god of Hellfire and I bring you—fire.” Where am I going with a sick dog? There are no dogs allowed in my dormitory.

river dark
the whistle of someone
rowing home

“That dog has a fever,” my roommate Peter says. “Keep the mutt off my bed.” I feed him handfuls of dog food that I got at the market but the dog isn’t hungry, just wants to curl up in a ball and sleep. His eyes and nose are starting to water. I carry him outside every morning in the dark so no one sees. He walks a little then wants back up the steps.

At night, between studies, guys on my hall stop by to see the dog. “He’s not getting better,” Peter says and hands me a can of coins and crumpled bills. “We passed the hat. Your dog needs to see a doctor.”

The veterinarian says it could be distemper. He needs to keep the dog for a while, feed him liquids, and give him a medication to fight the virus. He says the money in the can is more than enough to cover his care but I should know there are no guarantees. “You might try a prayer,” he says.

before the rain
the bite of something

I am not accustomed to all the traditions. The dance is one of them. An all-girls college is not far away. Freshmen boys are asked to sign up with the promise that they wear a white shirt, tie, and their shoes will shine. I sign up even with a fat wart on my hand and penny loafers that slip when I walk. Peter lends me a tie.

A bus drives us over to Flagler College where we form a line. As we enter the auditorium, each of us is matched with a girl—there are no choices. I am matched up with Fay who has blonde hair and is wearing a blue dress.

The band is playing songs by Gerry and the Pacemakers and Johnny Rivers. The room smells like perfume and we dance to every song. When the band takes a break, I ask Fay if she would like a glass of punch. On the way back, I hear her say to a friend, “That’s the only blessed thing he said all night.”

I tell Fay about the dog and how he was sick, how the vet let him come home after a week, and that I named him Neil after the dog on Topper. “No,” I say, “he’s not a Saint Bernard.”

he refuses
to step on moonlight

The dog is missing. He doesn’t spring from behind bushes or crawl from under a bench to join me as I walk to the next class. A girl with a ponytail stops me to say, “I have to tell you—you just don’t look right without your dog.” Did Neil remember that he once had a home? Is he in a house now with children and good smells coming from the kitchen?

He has been gone for three days. After supper, I leave the cafeteria and run all over campus. Have you seen a black and white dog with a red collar? I end up along the river, my skin wet like a salamander’s. I run and call and listen. There are high-pitched squeaks in the trees. I don’t know if they are birds or frogs. My vision blurs from the sweat, the tears. I cannot see the shadow of a dog. Locals say there is always a chance of rain, moisture from the sea, and mist on the river. I feel that way—rain is eminent.

wet leaves
the way my feet
find the holes

I hear the classroom door open and close then the patter of paws down an aisle between desks. My English teacher says nothing and goes on about her lesson. Heads turn and follow the dog back to my desk where he settles under my feet.

After class, I notice a few strands of beads around the dog’s neck, and something folded and taped to his collar. For the owner of Neil, we kidnapped your dog, he wouldn’t eat so we are returning him to you, and he can keep the beads.

sultry night
can I catch them now?

I don’t know his real name; call him Johnny Fastback like everyone else does. He is from Patterson, New Jersey—skinny as a cigarette. Whistles Beatles songs all the time, says they are the only group worth a damn. Johnny buys a Rambler station wagon from a couple in Saint Augustine, says they were a little afraid of him at first, the way he talks. Plans to drive home for Thanksgiving and has room for four or five who want to chip in for gas—no suitcases. No stops along the way. “Yea, Yea, Yea,” you can bring the dog.

The dog is on my lap the whole ride, stares out the window at the passing cars, flashing lights. Johnny drops us off in Phillipsburg soon after we cross the Delaware River. “Pick you up Monday, same time same place, be there or be square,” he says as he rattles away in his car.

Twenty miles from home. I hold the dog in one arm and stick my thumb in the air with the other. No-one stops to give us a lift. Cold settles in my neck and fingers, the dog shivers and the air feels like snow.

I call my father from a phone booth, tell him I’m at the Key City Diner, and ask if he can come get me. I hear my father’s muffled voice. He must be saying something to my mother—something about where I am. I can’t understand what he is trying to say.

dusting of snow
a train whistle rises
in the clear

Author's Note: The haiku “river dark” first appeared in the North Carolina Haiku Society Anthology 2014



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