The Red-Letter Words

Steven Reese

The Red-Letter Words

Plastic, and all caps, my letters. The same red
they used for licorice and cough syrup.
And my page: the hotel marquee twenty-five feet
in the air.

A twenty-foot ladder made getting up there
almost heroic, a one-handed lunge for the rail
of the catwalk, hanging free in mid-air a moment
till you swung a leg up.

It beat the other houseboy chores: setting up 
tables and chairs for a hundred Rotarians;
mopping the lobby; vacuuming hallways.
That was all beneath me

from up there. You could see Rt. 13 bend away
toward one of the lakes the Iroquois claimed
had been made when God pressed a hand 
down onto the earth,

the highway a string of tail- and headlights,
the lake a glimpse of moonsheen. Below me,
cars waited out the signal on Triphammer Road
while I spelled

CONGRATS OLIVER AND LUCY, or
WELCOME ELECTRIC & GAS, or
BRAVO LT. VOGEL, or DESPERADO
2 NITE,

and I'd stay up there awhile, the catwalk
a crow's nest, the lights of the glacier-made
valley blending with starlight, a car or two
hailing me with horns

before I'd swing back down from the railing,
find the ladder with my foot, and trade night air 
for Check-Out's interrogating light, for rags
and Pine-Sol and plungers.

At the time, my two principal interests-sports,
and where fame came from-were yielding
to passions for the greater mysteries: breasts
and deep space,

the breathlessly intimate and the coldly remote,
which I knew first-hand only from one night's
ride home in the car of our high school's most 
Roman Catholic girl.

I could put your name up in lights, I said,
and hardly touched her. She dumped me out
and gave me the finger, a whirling galaxy
of dust from her tires.

Not long after that, fame came to our town:
William Shatner's one-man show surveyed
the whole history of restless, heaven-gazing
humankind,

adopting the voice now of Copernicus, now
Galileo, then a whole cast of stellar explorers, 
in between whom he'd speak as himself-
Captain of the Enterprise.

My brother and I went home that night awed 
by the dark we were spinning through, the dark
that little by little was taking on shape,
one unknown

behind another revealing itself to the mind,
to the telescope, the observatory, the hieroglyphs
my uncle, a NASA mathematician, used
to talk about sky.

Starstruck hardly covers it, then, when I
saw William Shatner checking out at my
hotel the next day-a beige suit, a bag
by each foot

as he flipped through his wallet, about to go
boldly off to his next show in the next town
with that voice that had hung the planets
from a theater ceiling,

and which was now asking something about
the columns of figures on his receipt.
I leaned on my mop handle there in the lobby,
eavesdropping, eager.

When he hefted his bags and started out,
I held the door open, and he thanked me
while I stood dumb and humming inside
like a fluorescent light.

That night, I pulled myself up to the catwalk
with something big to say, like the red-letter
words in the Bible, the god stuff, the language
handed down to me.

But what? The dark was an auditorium's,
my audience everywhere, passing or just
pulling in for the night before other places
welcomed them home.

TINA MARIE LIVE LONG AND PROSPER.
HONK IF U KNOW WHERE U R GOING.
WELCOME IROQUOIS GODS. DESPERATE
2 NITE.

Any of which would have got me fired,
and that would have been just fine. The lobby
blared like some kind of jackpot below me,
and back of that, inside,

travelers slept soundly on the way to their lives.
They'd wake next day to a blank marquee-
since of all the words sent down from the dark, 
I could make none matter.

 

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