Providence Nocturne: Two Portraits


He rides an old tugboat, slathered in scum,
a stubby, inelegant craft, good only
for pushing or pulling, decades unpainted,
its underside roiled with barnacles.
He owns a fleet of them, proud
amid the beer-can condom flotsam
of the shallow bay. Nothing
enters this harbor without his help.
Oil tankers, ocean liners, barges laden
with toxic ash or scrap or lumber,
all lost without his men there, tugging,
pulling, day and night, fair and foul.

He squints for his hated rival, that upstart,
for two old families ply the upper Bay,
each in its own eyes the elder, the better.
Their captains' proud tonnage slides by
and even at near collision no nod, no hoot
of the horn acknowledges the other.
Each waits to buy the other out
at the Grim Reaper's auction house.

Strange he seems in his suit and tie,
one of those New England faces
with skin pinched tight as a drumhead.
He has just come from his club,
the ancestral, restricted one
from whose leather chairs the scions
of older families chide those of the younger,
and the cowed waiters dare not confuse
the pecking order in the reading room.
Me first. My family was here
with Roger Williams. He's just
a johnny-come-carpetbagger.
I won't touch The New York Times
if he's pawed through it first.
The talk had been, as usual,
about those god-damn interlopers —
Jews on the library board, Italians
helping to run the historical society,
women running amuck. “Don’t ask me
to kiss the ring of that Episcopal bishop,
a woman! a woman! Next thing you know,
they’ll be marrying lesbians, and men to men!”

On the tugboat, everything seems clear:
the clean, colonial line of the hill,
those proper white steeples, those mansions
from the days of rum, Negroes and molasses,
when business was business and it was
nobody’s business what you bought or sold.
Up at the college with its Greek-front halls
they once taught Latin and Greek and classics.
Look at it now! A woman in charge, a Negress!
Marxist professors! Tattooed coeds! Hipping
and hopping with language unfit to hear!
Out of the closet perverts running the city!
And now the damn Indians everywhere,
dancing on the Arcade steps, wanting their land back!

He looks west, where once good people lived,
streets full of fine Victorian houses.
He shouts at the hulking hills: “Niggers!
Spics and Niggers! Wogs and Slant-Eyes!”
But his voice only reaches the hurricane barrier,
his only audience the wharf rats and one
whom they call —


Everyone has seen him. In fact, your arrival
in Providence is marked by the first encounter.
We always ask newcomers this:
“Have you seen the fish man yet?”
His head is conical, and bright red,
mottled, hairless, shiny as an apple,
icthyc and chinless with horrible lips.
One of his ears is twice the size
of  the other, and webbed as well.
Fish man, the Innsmouth look,
we think as he hurtles by
on a bicycle stripped of gears and brakes.
Stand in his way and he calls out
epithets amid a cloud of spittle.
Odd job man, he may be the one
who washes your plates in the unseen kitchen,
   the one who comes in by the back door only..
His furtive broom might clean the pier
     long after closing time,
behind the seafood restaurant,
before he glides away
     into the rat and ‘possum night.

He’s tried all the invisible jobs in town:
an undertaker’s assistant, perhaps –
his hands might be the last to touch you
as he places your body gently
on the furnace conveyor belt.
Has he done the night watch?
    the lobster shift at some printery?
Too bad
there are no more mad scientists to serve!

Who knows where he sleeps,
    or who mothered him?
What’s in his mind? Has he an erotic life,
a round of afternoon lovers,
millionaires’ wives who moan for him?
Does he have a library card?
Has he secretly memorized all of Milton?
Does he have a fondness for lilacs,
fireflies, and gibbous moons?
Has he ever heard of H.P. Lovecraft?

In fact, he is descended from one
of the oldest families,
could take his place,
   if he wanted,
at the club on Benevolent Street.
I'll have that New York Times,
first, if you please.

But we know him only by his kid-cruel nickname,
as we recount to one another
the odd frisson of another 
Peckerhead sighting.


  1. Very visual. This might be great for a stage performance with costumes. I can smell the salt.


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