Hai-Dang Phan

Hai-Dang Phan is author of the chapbook Small Wars (Convulsive Editions, 2016). His poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Boston Review, jubilat, New England Review, Bennington Review, and Lana Turner. He is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College, and currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa. (photo: Linh Dinh)

 

 

WAITING FOR AL-QAEDA

 

Walking down Broadway today
I get a call from my old neighbor
I haven’t heard from in ages.
“Hy-Vee is having a sale on soda.”
That’s too bad because New York
is so expensive. She’s always
wanted to see the city, but knows
she won’t, “not in this lifetime.”

I recall well our first meeting.
She wore a unisex cherubic
helmet of tight crunchy curls,
a giant sweatshirt declaring
for the record the season
(Cyclones vs. Hawkeyes)
and the state we were in:
A House Divided!

Local, thick-skinned,
heavyset, and magnetic,
she was a high-functioning
schizophrenic. For years,
a medical transcriptionist until
an episode left her jobless, bereft.
I was a low-functioning poet.
We became good neighbors.

Our communicating hallway
was a dimly lit echoey channel
of humdrum broadcasts.
Often I tuned in for company.
She had the isolato’s talent
for talking to herself. Her laugh
swept the floor, her curses
brightened the corners,

and her humor was Kevlar.
Of our absentee landlord
Cheryl: “total B-I-T-C-H,
all caps, scary letters”;
of her chronically teary cat:
“Poor Miles has herpes,
but you don’t have to worry
unless you’re also a cat.”

Some days were too much.
When her Ziploc gallon bag
of laundry quarters disappeared
she called the cops, who called
Cheryl in San Luis Obispo…
She had until New Year’s Day
to find a new place and move out.
“Merry-fucking-Christmas.”

I came over one day to help,
the only time I ever stood inside
her apartment. Above the table
Mia Hamm with a flying ponytail
executed the poster perfect
corner kick; in the only photo
on the fridge, a girl in shadow
calmly stroked a kitten—

“I keep that to remind myself,
‘You weren’t always ugly.’”
She showed me the pantry,
where a shocking stockade
of perished non-perishables
towered on unstable shelves.
Freed from that great wall
a warped can of beans fell

and rolled to a stop at our feet.
A dud. We exploded into laughter.
“Those date back to the time
I was waiting for al-Qaeda.”
Under the kitchen sink
she still kept a blaze orange
backpack, her Wal-Mart
terrorist attack survival kit.

“Do they kill the virgins first
or keep us as trophies?”
She felt wholly unprepared
for what was to come.
Failing to find an answer,
I made eyes with July’s
Cosmo pressing luridly against
a see-through storage bin.

The surf of traffic washes
our rooms away. I still don’t
know what to say, so I promise
to send her a postcard, and do:
an aerial shot of Central Park
in autumn, something someone
might see flying into the city,
their feelings in fall colors.

 

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