Rick Hilles

GRAPPA
     
At the cool, wet, red-amber sunset edge
      of the zinc bar, he rests a lanky arm—

his lean long hands fitful as squirrels contemplating
      flight as he explains what he's just done:

Ordered us the drink that comes from "pomace,"
      everything that even the worst winemakers

discard. Condensed assemblies of undesirables:
      pruned skins, crushed stems, bitter

seeds, dregs & detritus. I'm not from this city.
      Yet find myself entertaining a friend

from out-of-town, a former Army brat, who grew
      up here in Tennessee. Mid-January, we're

three & a half hours by car from the infamous
      Lorraine motel. Today Dr. King would

have been eighty. So we toast to him. My friend
      has the air of someone who's been walking

daily among mountains that disappear & reappear
      in low-flying clouds. He's just a little bit

taller now than the rest of us, & he seems to keep
      opening a path behind him that one might

follow inside the darkness he stands in. I imitate him
      & drink—my head snaps back then forward—

my whole body clenching around that cold burn.
      It's like trying to take in all of Winter

in one breath. The empty shot glass now smells
      vaguely of green antifreeze, old toothpicks,

& our fathers' fathers' aftershave. For a moment
      I can hardly contain how much I miss my dead.
     

Craig Arnold, who will be dead in six months, now
      wants to tell me about his late teacher,
     
Larry Levis, whose place he rented in Salt Lake City.
      Larry came back a month early from his leave
     
like a ghost escaping Paradise, returning for everything
      the dead might come to miss. Some nights

Craig would hear a knock late at his door. Then
      a "Sorry to bother you" & "your light was on."

(It always was!) Some nights Larry came by for a smoke.
      But once it was to share something he'd been

saving for an occasion: The grappa he so loved.
      Which we drink at this Nashville zinc bar.

Larry Levis grew up in California on a vineyard
      that yielded grapes worthless for wine.

His father could only harvest them for raisins. All
      those gorgeous acres in the San Joaquin

Valley, a landscape to rival Lorca's lemon, orange,
      & almond groves. His father would have

made a killing if he'd made grappa—the thought
      never occurred to him, Levis said.

"Bottoms up," Craig says, as if standing at the edge
      of a brilliant expanse. They're all gone

now, no more solid than the words I keep laying
      out for them like breadcrumbs by which

the dead might return to us as birds from the present
      heights they currently circle & dwell in. Now,

over a year after his death, I still picture Craig there
      bracing himself for a summit that one of us

must keep climbing, the pink & green neon flashes
      refracting in the empty shot glass he holds
     
up to his face like a prism he just keeps turning,
      a mirror of spun starlight in his hands, as if

to say: "See this?" (the emptiness bright as a diamond,
      which blinds me.) "What will you make of it?"

(Originally appeared in New South)

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