Back to Poet Page

  I was working in my yard,
When I saw him coming down the street,
Skinny, tall, and old,
He seemed to totter along so weak.

So unkempt in cast-off clothes,
That didn’t seem to fit.
Probably wouldn’t recognize a bathtub,
If he stumbled over it.

I figured him just another weak excuse,
Who’d given up and just lost heart.
Easier to sponge off the rest of us,
Than stand up and do his part.

Oh, I’d seen these men drift by,
On their way to the mission down the block.
Sometimes wondered what stories they would tell,
If only they would talk.

Where they their father’s cherished dream,
Once their mother’s pride and joy?
What crooked road had brought them here,
From that bouncing baby boy.

I usually ignored these derelicts,
That drifted by like smoke.
If even acknowledged them to my friends,
It was with a slightly cruel joke.

But that old guy just caught my eye,
Why, I couldn’t say.
He never looked up as he shuffled by,
Never even glanced my way.

I went back to pruning my roses,
Usually one of my favorite chores.
But the sun didn’t feel quite so warm,
And I didn’t enjoy it as before.

Though he was just another derelict,
I couldn’t get him off my mind.
Kept wondering what millstones of fate,
Had caught him in their grind.

I finally put my tools away,
And followed down the block.
Apprehension in my stomach lay,
Like a heavy, cold, hard rock.

I hoped none of my friends would see,
As I slipped through that mission door.
Didn’t know what I was doing there,
I’d certainly never been before!

I spotted him sitting quietly,
Waiting for the sermon and a meal.
You’ve gotta hear ‘The Word’ if you want to eat,
That seemed to be the deal.

I meant to just take a look then go.
My dinner was almost done.
Just one quick look then leave,
Try not to seem to run.

They all studiously ignored each other,
But when he glanced up our gazes locked.
Though he quickly turned away,
I knew him with a shock!

An old shipmate from long ago.
We’d fished, partied, and palled around for years.
Been through many boats and ports,
And lots of girls and beers.

I couldn’t believe he’d come to this!
He was a high-roller wild and true.
But now a sick broken old man,
Whose day was almost through.

I wanted to drag him out of there,
And stand him on his feet.
But I eased over beside him.
And quietly took a seat.

When we finally could, we started to talk,
And he told me his tale.
He told it straight, although the booze,
Had knocked the wind out of his sails.

He said, “I was fishing off-shore one winter,
Seemed an extra cold, windy, time.
Howling wind and flying spray,
Everything covered with icy rime.

My deck mate was Johnny O.
You remember that kid with a great big smile?
No matter how tough, he had a joke,
Seemed to be singing all the while.

Well, the engineer was checking the engine room,
So we were two-handing for a pot or two.
Nothing new or different there,
Just something we all used to do.

Johnny was coiling and telling a joke,
While I sorted crab and watched the block.
Don’t know how it even happened,
But he went over like a rock!

I jumped to the rail screaming, ‘Man overboard!’,
And grabbed him by the coat.
I’d jerk him aboard and we’d have a laugh,
Hell, he was right there by the boat!

But his icy coat slipped from my hand!
Oh God! He just slipped away!
I’ll tell you as I reached for him,
I did both scream and pray!

I grabbed again and he reached for me!
I saw the terror in his eyes!
Though our fingers touched, he was gone,
Lost to my inept tries!

The boat rolled away and he was gone!
I thought I’d heard him out in the night!
But though the skipper spun the boat around,
There was nothing in the light!

The search was so intense,
Everyone feels the horror of going overboard out there.
Though there was nothing to be seen,
I kept hearing Johnny calling me, I swear!

I couldn’t go back, I was done.
But even home didn’t feel the same.
I’d wake up in the night,
Hearing Johnny call my name!

Drunk or sober, but mostly drunk,
Nothing seems to help.
I’ve lost my home, my wife, my kids.
I’ve thrown away my health.

If I had the guts, I’d cut my throat!
But I fear Johnny’s waiting on the other side,
To tell me, I could have saved him,
If I really would have tried!

Now I know there’s a Hell,
I wake to it every day!
It just can’t get worse than this,
No matter what the preachers say.

I still see Johnny’s eyes,
Even when too drunk to stand.
And hear him scream my name,
As he slipped away from my hand!

God knows I’ve tried to find some peace,
But I keep seeing Johnny’s eyes!
Folks say in time I’ll find it,
But that’s all a pack of lies!”

Well, I just set there in shock,
And stared at my old friend,
Realizing it could as easily been me,
Coming to this bitter end!

I knew I had to help,
And told him not to go away.
Then went to tell my wife,
I was bringing someone home to stay.

When I got back to the mission,
He was no longer there.
And though I searched frantically,
No one really seemed to care.

He was just one of so many,
That had simply lost their way.
After all, it was his own choice,
Whether he would leave or stay.

I searched, but never found a trace,
But I just can’t forget that man.
It seems, I too, let someone needing help,
Slip away from my hand.

David Densmore
Nov. 8, 2003