Tom Sleigh


Face cross-hatched by violet shadows that fall round her like a net,

she struggles through steel walls to squeeze back

onto the street just before I wake, as if an unknown planet,


cross-currenting earth’s gravity, tugged her harder, harder:

Planet Pizza Crust, Planet Souvlaki Scrap,

Planet of Her Little House of Cardboard on the Corner,


Planet of Her Little House of Rain When It Rains.

She seems almost to swim, her legs on one side of the detention

center’s walls, her head and shoulders bursting


through the other: tagged in white paint on the steel doors:

Dios es amor: and then she slides

on through, exhaust fumes shawling round her shoulders.



I’d wake, she’d fade: and all through my walk to work, threading

hi-rise grids of Cor-Ten steel, I’d feel my grip, in that planet’s

influence, slipping off my lower rung; or like swaying on an I-beam


80 stories high, could I freefall as far as her?

—Face shoving through the dream, bundled in holey sweaters

and men’s sweatpants bulging with newspaper


to keep warm, she’d stare right through the lady cops

threatening to shoo her off—but just as often turning a blind eye

while she sat selling crayons loose from the box,


scratched bottles of nail polish, tattered books and magazines,

even a beret. Once, a draggled kitten

peeked its head out from her coat. Once I saw a man trying


to hit her, her screaming back, Get your pinche shit

away from me, pinche culero—everyone looking

away until the beat cops happened by and broke it up.


And once I saw her coming out of the detention center’s

cable-gridded doors: escorted by a guard,

she shrugged eyebrows in greeting; I smelled her odor,


laminar as wet spring dirt giving off leaf-rot,

urine tang, sweetish, acrid mellowing of dried feces:

there was something stolid, pugnacious even in her jaw’s jut


that shoved past barriers; yet she held aloof, caught

behind her own fragile walls, eyes signaling Posted No Trespassing

to mine. And behind that depth of silence, what?



“Underclass” “street people” “homeless” “the poor”—

as if such terms didn’t dull the gleam, amidst cratered concrete,

of the mother-of-pearl butterfly comb holding back her hair,


her own sense of her inside different than the eyes that looked at her,

no matter the seamed lines raying her mouth and eyes,

mascara smudged; as if the city’s lights could afford her nothing more


than her little busted lawnchair tethered to a single square of ungiving

sidewalk … but of course I knew, my dream made sure

I knew, the real nature of that illumination: her face keeps dissolving


into the detention center’s floodlights sanding smooth her features

even as she tries to hoard what she can against that glare: and as I give

her a quarter, the dream envelops me, she bends down to where


I huddle in a ratty sleeping bag, walkie-talkie voices crackling in my ear

Move Move as I lie there, unable to flinch a muscle.

And now she’s saying, what, she wants a dollar?


And the dream fading out, I’m shaking my head “no” with that little

annoyed shake that says, “who are you to me”

as our eyes swim away even as we exchange strained smiles . . .



Soon after that, I saw her counting spare change into

her drink holder, her face shining an angry orange:

jaundice, I remember thinking, she’s for it now:


and two weeks later, she was gone: maybe she moved to another part

of the city, but I’d seen that same orange

on a friend’s face just days before he died … Weeks after that,


I couldn’t walk by that spot without thinking how “Fenix”—

the name the dream called her, I never knew her real name—was still

there: so that when I neared the corner I couldn’t help but tense


a block or so away and grip whatever spare change I had,

knowing it wasn’t enough even as I tried not knowing, ready to trigger

loose my coins and nod, with feigned ease, to her nod . . .


And even now, in that tension that makes her absence

present, her atoms seem to leave a trace

that some sixth sense in me feels the way planets


feel the gravitation of black holes:

I see her at the edge of all that energy being sucked

into anti-matter feet first because gravity pulls


slightly stronger on her toes. And without really thinking

any of it’s there, I see the rickety, flashing wheels of her laundry cart.

I see her hand thrust out, face unreadable, gone wooden, gaze pointing


at my chest right at heart level. And most of all I see her sunglasses

that say in florid cursive on one tinted lens Kiss

and on the other lens My Ass.

Found In Volume 38, No. 05
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  • Tom Sleigh
Tom Sleigh
About the Author

Tom Sleigh’s books include After OneWakingThe ChainThe DreamhouseFar Side of the EarthBula Matari/Smasher of RocksSpace Walk, and a translation of Euripides’ Herakles. His book of essays, Interview with a Ghost, was published in 2006. Among his many awards are the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.