Afternoon Joe / Bob Ambrose

You smile into a steaming cup in search of grounds
and gracious lines to share with he in painter’s cap
who holds up signs by traffic stops where hand-drawn
letters spell the barter – work for food, but what he offers
one more try for wary drivers – multiply the fish and loaves
within the gap from red to green. But eyes averted never
see the narrow Galilean path that stretches off another way
beyond the light that guides the flow from bank to drugs
to Chick-fil-A and on to homes to huddle nights encased
in husks of wood and cheer, which fortify a life’s veneer
in hoarded warmth

            but those like Joe
spend hours in the public square
and nurse their warmth from cardboard
cups – a Big Joe buys an afternoon
of comfort on a well-used couch
amidst assorted Macs and pads
and textbooks cracked by pert coeds
in gym shorts, flip-flops, painted toes
by funky guys in baggy clothes
with khakis cut around their knees
or sidearm tats and tattered jeans,
by nursing interns sporting scrubs
and midlife strivers buttoned up,
a young instructor talking math
and Chinese lovers lugging packs
engaged in study and each other,
working mother, child in tow –
they come and go and barely note
an old man whiling time alone
and gentle souls at rest, like Joe

            who on a warm midafternoon
could tell you how to weather cold that numbs the soul
against the years, to finish off on cruel nights what God
began so long ago, how when a soggy winter low is chased
by Arctic mass blown south where weak won’t make
the morning light in trembling walls of flesh and fabric,
hunkered, huddled, soon to die, one last command –

     that man should rise
     and manufacture right
     on ice, from slush
     a snowman shrine to life
     submerging fear
     in warmth of play
     through bitter night
     to brittle day

            and yes, I too,
I think to say, have felt my heart so
strangely warmed behind my silent
public smile my words are snowmen
guarding night and creeping numbness
in my life, but due respect stills my
reply, and so retreat for fresh supply
of cardboard warmth that binds
the ties of mid-day neighbors, even
Joe who, unobtrusive, slips away
somewhere along the ancient path
to canvas home beneath the stars.

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