Before you invest in a book on manners,
Better make sure it contains a chapter
On keeping silent, one to remind you,
When you pull off on the shoulder
Of a country road to ask directions,
Not to ask the elderly man in overalls,
Who crosses the field to greet you,
Why he isn't wearing a hat on a day so sunny.
If the sun has deepened the ruts in his face,
It's too late now to stop it, the chapter reasons,
And why remind him how much he's aged?
And if you notice blood-vessel cobwebs
Beneath his eyes—for you a sure sign of drinking
Over many years—the same chapter will warn you
Not to suggest, however gently, that help
Is available if he wants to stop. Who knows
What escape you might have tried
If you'd had his worries:
The flooding and drought and heavy mortgage,
The doctor's bills he'll never see the end of.
Already you owe him something for the reticence
That keeps him from asking, when you tell him
You're on your way to visit an old friend,
Why you've come so seldom you can't recall
If you're anywhere near the turnoff.
"You can't miss it," he simply says,
"Three miles straight ahead at the stand of sweet gum,"
And when your doubtful look suggests
You can't tell a sweet-gum tree from a hemlock,
He fishes a pencil out of his bib pocket
And sketches its shape so deftly
You're certain you'd know it anywhere,
So deftly you'll need to resist the urge to ask
If he ever considered a career in art.
If he didn't, it's too late now to begin. If he did,
But then decided against it, why finger that wound?
Keep silent and show how grateful you are
For his not asking what work you do
That's so important it's justified letting a friendship
Thin to a shadow of what it was.
Then it's time to thank him and drive off,
Glad you haven't asked him about the beautiful
Sunrises and sunsets he must be able to witness
Above the hills to the east and west.
It's best to avoid a compliment that might remind him
Of the difference between watching a sunset
With the friends who used to watch beside him
And watching now.
Carl Dennis is the author of 11 books of poems, including, most recently, Callings.
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