My unhappily married neighbor,
a man in his mid- to late sixties,
said to me on a recent afternoon
in the side street between our houses—
he was already well under the influence:
“You know in a hundred years
it won’t mean nothing you and me
were once alive and kicking.”
Retired from the telephone company
where he had been a foreman
of a repair crew, the men who climbed
(in those days long before the cell phone)
telephone poles with those contraptions
strapped around their waist connecting
them securely to the poles, up and down
which they made their way cumbersomely
to keep us all in touch with each other.
He must have been a functioning
alcoholic able to stay sober while
he was on the job, confining his drinking
to evenings, weekends, and holidays.
A doctor of philosophy, I wondered
when he had first had the insight
into the insignificance of the individual
in the grand cosmic scheme of things.
He went to church each Sunday,
so he was apparently a believer,
but just what he believed would
be hard to say with any certainty.
A teetotaling atheist, an English professor,
I didn’t have anything to add to what he said.
I did, however, think of a stanza
from Shelley’s “To a Skylark,”
which I recalled from memory:
“We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”