If love comes close then death comes close

Diane Seuss

If you stroke the cheek you touch the skull.

I learned this early, but you’ve heard

those stories. Heard them

all the way from Michigan to Smoky

Mountain National Park, where we slept

on the cold, hard ground,

all the way from Michigan to Long’s Peak

in Colorado, where K-Mart

sleeping bags couldn’t stand up to the cold

so we heated rocks on the campfire

and embraced them all night like paramours.

We were so far up and so cold

we didn’t even know Nixon resigned.

In the Smokies I met a park ranger

from down around that way. He took me

up a thousand stairs to a fire tower

that swayed over the landscape like …

well, it swayed like itself, like only a fire

tower can sway on its spindle-legs,

in the wind, and while it swayed

the ranger told me about locating a lost

boy scout who’d frozen to death in the cold

and when the kid pulled off his glove —

the freezing often feel like they’re on fire —

his fingers snapped away from his hand

like icicles. The ranger found the glove

near the body with the scout’s frozen digits

inside. Or the woman plane crash victim

whose body lay twisted on the ground,

her scalp and long blonde hair in a nearby

tree-of-heaven. Yep, he said, looking down

over the blue humps of the mountains,

the clouds floating so close we could have

licked them, like deer, for salt. The ranger

could have done anything to me up there.

Kissed or raped me. Thrown me

from the tower. But he was what was called

back then a perfect gentleman. We climbed

down, step step step step, step step step step, that

sort of music, and he drove me to see a bottle

tree in some old lady’s yard. Blue bottles, red

bottles, green, amber, rattling against each other

in the wind. Good clean fun.

No death in it, and no love. You heard

my stories all the way from Michigan to New

Orleans, St. Augustine, and Corpus Christie,

how love came close, and with it, death,

I don’t need to tell those ragged tales again.

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