Manky the scowler from Germantown
could stink up a squat like rotten pork.
Everyone had fleas, a little bit of funk,
that panhandler air of bread mold
and dirty socks, but Manky was more
like a weather pattern, a cold front
stiff as refiner's smoke from the
Domino plant across the bay. Travis
called him Pigpen, forced him to sit
in a corner of that gutted house,
ridiculed him endlessly with mock
moans and gags. Black-haired Mank
would bristle and seethe and finally
mutter, "Jesus, man, just give it up."
So these were my brothers.
I was fourteen or fifteen, and these
cruel, illiterate boys carousing
Broadway Market Square, living
on the rooftops of south Baltimore,
were my only friends. For dinners I went
with Travis to dive the hotel dumpsters,
and one of those nights, while he was in
the fray of grease and coffee grounds
and I was standing watch, I saw Manky
crouched by the docks, reading a book.
I came up behind him, walking on toes,
edged my body against a wall, and listened
as he mumbled vivo, vives, cras vivet.
Suddenly Travis was there, puzzled, giggling,
covered in mayonnaise, rubbing his bald
and crawling head; and Mank shot up and scowled,
wrapping his arms around the split spine
and dog-eared pages. I might have been jealous
of Mank, or angry with Travis, or simply hungry
for words. For weeks I tried to steal that book,
but Manky, who owned so little, kept it close
as a wallet or a wedding ring. He might have carried
those conjugations all the way to the hopeless wards
of the state hospital, where six years later, he died
asking for his father. Travis outlived him
by two or three years, then heroin. Last year
I returned with a copy of Catullus in my pocket
and ventured the docks and secretly peopled
alleyways, and saw the arsoned buildings gone,
the beautiful buildings arsoned. Alone
in south Baltimore, my pockets lined with money,
I gladly became a permanent tourist, a common
citizen, orphaned by my city, without a friend to bury.