A Man Said, Do You Love Me?

Donald Mangum


          He lay propped against a piling, under the bridge,
the stench of carcasses of fish along the bay shore
held in the still and soggy predawn air.
          Do you know me? I said.
          It’s not what I asked, he said.
The sky across the bay was absent the usual early play
of clouds and light, leaden.
          I fumbled through my pockets,
found some cash, offered it there.
Broken, I suppose, by circumstance and time,
he really had no choice but to accept.
He folded the bills, stashed them.
Thanks, buddy, he said.
He said, Well? bearing jagged teeth
inside a chaos of gnarls and whiskers.
          Feigning impatience, I reeled into the still near-dark,
continuing my daily constitutional, as my wife called it,
laughing, the wavelets worrying the seawall
where I walked between the dark bay and the darker field,
the clouds piling from the south,
the air stirring in uneven breaths.

                             * * *

          A maker of formulae by day,
ideas hatched and codified,
I’d come for something like clarity,
a gesture I thought the dawn might hold,
the world before it’s ours,
a sense of the thingness of things.
Ahead, a thumping of wings,
a protracted croak,
and a heron rose,
liminal, cruciform,
a dull phasm moving over water.
          This regimen
of pacing in the dark and half-light,
breathing deeply of morning after morning,
of solemn communion with the moon
and sentiments corralled and emptied,
having worn thin,
now punctured,
a veil of sunlight stretched across the sky and fell,
muting the landscape in glare.

          * * *

          Then beneath the bridge,
the underpass now cleared of indigents
(as daily it is -- an understanding with the city),
among the refuse, propped against that same piling,
I sat conjuring up the picture:
a man emerging from the dark
along the seawall, stoop-shouldered,
hands in his pockets, stride deliberate,
his gaze casting expectantly about,
coming then upon the stranger here
and his strange question,
the sudden consternation and retreat.  
I stood,
ambled through the flotsam of the culture,
discarded shopping carts, ice chests, ripped garments.
The heat had begun to mount,
the day to press its business.
The sky was empty and white.

                    * * *

          What were you supposed to do? my wife said,
her voice suspended in the yellow air of the dining room,
hushed by an evening rain against the windows and roof.
A front had arrived, the fall’s first,
and the rosemary smell of stewed meat
hung about the table between us.
What to say? she said, shaking her head.
I guess you could have lied.  Then what?
She shrugged, cocked her head, bit into a roll.
Your brother called.

                             * * *

          Sometime after midnight I stood craning on the lawn,
found out, it seemed, tried, convicted, still,
drunk with something – the night, the air, the silence of the sky –
robe flapping in the north wind, until emptied finally of thought.
          An owl streaked past in utterly silent flight.
The wind was cold, wonderful, and the moon pulled at the blood.


Donald Mangum's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Confrontation, Mississippi Review, and other periodicals and has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novella, The Roar Beneath, was published in 2016 by Mint Hill Books. He lives with his wife on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.