Client Namekagon River, photo by James C. Henderson
Categories Poems in the Time of Pandemic, Poetry
Location New Brighton, Minnesota
Date April 24, 2020

James C. Henderson

Politicians on TV are arguing about the pandemic—
who’s responsible for this, who for that, who’s going to pay.
I can hear them from the kitchen as I wash dishes.
It reminds me of my grandfather and my aunt Bea
arguing over who was going to pay the check for lunch

at the Tip Top Café in downtown Somerset, Wisconsin
when I was a young boy, and we were on our way
to my aunt’s family’s cabin on the Namekagon River
near Trego, a couple miles downriver from the dam—
but different.

I remember listening to them play cribbage in the kitchen
of the cabin while I fell sleep in the next room
the yellow light of the oil lamp flickering in the doorway:
“15-2, 15-4, and nobs is 5.”
“Earl, you stinker.”

I liked to listen to them argue, but not the politicians on TV.
They remind me too much of myself when I raise my voice
to criticize someone else’s lack of knowledge, reason, or empathy.
Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong, I always feel
bad afterwards, feel bad that I’ve hurt their feelings.

The other day I heard my neighbor and her boyfriend
brawling on the other side of the bedroom wall, felt
their voices rise and fall, moving about the room
as though they were tied to the rim of a wheel.
After that, all was quiet; the boyfriend was gone.

I don’t know how things can get so out-of-hand so fast
how we can lunge to each other’s throats so easily
be so inflexible. I don’t know why it’s so important to win
why it’s so hard to cooperate, but there comes a point
when it’s better to turn off the TV and go it alone.

I miss my Aunt Bea and my grandfather.
I miss the cabin on the Namekagon. I miss the Tip Top Café.
I miss my aunt and grandfather’s gentle teasing over cribbage
their arguments over who was going to pay the check for lunch
because no matter who won, the other left the tip.