He is already screaming at me. Even before I cross the intersection, he is gesticulating in my direction, brandishing a tiny black prayer book. My accuser, garbed in black hat and coat, is perched behind an overturned shopping cart: a pulpit that must be on loan from Pathmark. Although I have watched him pass judgement on everyone from yeshiva students to pizza delivery men, some of the choicest condemnations are reserved for me. He points at low-rise blue jeans, a flannel shirt and tattoos exposed beneath short sleeves. I seem to be the person he is warning the world about: the poetry teacher late for class at the public school.
As I hurry along the avenue, intending to rush past this supermarket sanctuary, my accuser howls a gust of Yiddish proclamations. They pass over me like a wind of unknowing. Some of the utterances sound familiar — intonations I heard during childhood: I remember my grandmother using those sounds to curse a stranger who pushed her on the subway. Just as I am being cursed for invading the neighborhood, desecrating the avenues with spiked hair, golden earrings and a backpack filled with books of collected verse — my own ancient prayers to comfort me in this valley of brick and mortar, myths of sustenance contained in metered stanzas. I learned to recite these poems on futons in the light of dying candles, jotting notes on strips of paper torn from the sides of old grocery bags.
My accuser is dumbfounded when I stop to address him. I stand at the rusting frame of his shopping cart and begin chanting proverbs, first from memory then from the yellowing pages of a dog-eared collection. I intone the most prominent vows from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He offers a series of grunts and grimaces to punctuate each line. I like to believe that we both are considering the implications, the proximity of Amos, Micah and Josiah to William Blake: the joy of conversation between lonely men separated by centuries, the Romantic prophets and the Hebrews discovering at last that opposition is true friendship.
My accuser allows me to complete my sermon before offering a response of his own. His laughter is far worse than his screams. It is the sound of fury attempting to wrestle with absurdity, a dissonant cackle that only grows louder with each repetition. An electric school bell hums in the distance, but I do not depart. I have became entranced by my own laughter, my voice projecting itself, joining my accuser in a psalm we can both chant, without need for text or translation: a blessing for brothers seeking to return home from exile.
Craig Fishbane has been published in the New York Quarterly, the Boston Literary Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Prime Number, Flashquake and Opium. His chapbook, “Dengue Fever,” will be published by BoneWorld in the winter of 2012.