Lines In The Water
Michael Shorb

Over coffee and time cards, we talk
Of lines in the water, salt
Eating into veins of world's
Rivers, saline encroachment,
Parcher of roots stuffing the Amazon's
      pushing back lifelines
Of Aswan-choked
Nile delta
Torrents of Columbia
Crowded with dams 
Clouded with wood pulp.

"Gonna fuckin' happen here," says Ben,
Ex-Navy, foreman.
                  "Divert good mountain
Water down this Peripheral Canal,
Heist the balance, you'll see winter
Runs of salmon up the Sacramento
Go, you'll see the brackish 
Sump they serve up for 
Wetlands and a bay."

Lines in the water 
                  carry us back
To Shanghai, China. 

                    Oleg, émigré office manager

Whose parents fled Moscow in '17,
Following ice railroads 
To Manchuria
            south and coastward
Across the Yellow Sea.

And Ben, a nameless face 
In the victory fleet.
I am there in the listening.

Past Okinawa the blue Pacific
Mass sweeps green by 
The East China Sea
To Shanghai, where sediment,
Russet breath of distant
         fogs the Yangtze-Kiang's 
Flowing, a line bends 
In sea where the mud-

Flecked river's strength is spent, 
Dull gold band streaking 
                        to deeper hues.
Ben looks up from 
A half-packed bearing, rests
One hand on his bench, remembering:

"Called 'em the Garbage Chute Wars.

We were anchored mid river
On the Hangchow side, in '46.
Chinks would have little battles
Down on the water, maneuvering
Sampans for the territory
Right under the galley chute
Where the garbage dropped."
He chuckles, as much in resignation 
As cruelty, a witness.

"They'd be down there, 
                     bloody as pirates,
Whacking each other 
With jagged stubs of oar, 
Muscling their curving
Boats into line. 
                Damn cooks'd watch, drag
A barrel filled with latrine water 
To the edge and 

                BANG it'd bust

That fuckin' sampan
Poor bastards'd fly fifty yards,
Pigtailed rockets 
                 over muddy water.

They were starving, after the war," he adds,
Changing tones on a slight pause.

"Got that right. 
Last months before the 
Reds took over you needed 
A wheelbarrow full of money
To buy a few apples 
And a bar of soap,"
                   says Oleg.
"I had a fortune once, 
Printed on tissue, 

He tells us about the Jesuits
In Shanghai St. Joseph's, how he
Memorized Geologic Ages to escape
        with a leather strap.
About saving Troy ounce
Gold bars to bribe
                  Japanese soldiers 
As a clerk in the customs
House, accepting cumshaw,
                         bribes of fruit and rice
Plying angled, pungent streets
With bags of walnuts from
                          the orchards of Hangchow
While he lived upstairs by an ivied
Wall near the harbor where navy
Cooks laughed down on 
Sampans bearing 
               triumphant, starving men.

"This country's a Moneysaurus," Oleg laughs,
"I've seen it happen.
Big green thing strutting
Around now, but things'll change.
Things'll get it.
Climates grow dark.
Other animals'll eat it's eggs,
Pick over it's bones.

They'll fight like wild dogs someday
For eyeglasses
              car jacks and shoelaces.
The world's meaner than it was."

"Listen to you, 
Old bastard, 
Fuckin' prophet,"
Ben snorts, walking away.

But later, as I say good night,
Ben says nothing,
                gray head down
Staring across the deck
Of his wrench-strewn bench.