Riff-raff

by Richard Spilman

They turn circles in the strip mall
parking lot like the undead
in a zombie movie or huddle
under a decorative tree on an island
of grass, cold in long-sleeved shirts
despite the noonday New Mexico heat.

Some stop to interrogate shattered bottles
or their own shadows, turning round
and round as if they hoped to escape
the darkness their bodies cast.
One sleeps curled against the curb;
another rocks, hands on head, weeping.

A man with wind-braided hair, eyes
grown shrewd, edges toward the line
at the Burger King drive through,
drawn perhaps by the hip hop
from a yellow Corvette, or the kids
dangling out the widows of a van.

It’s guerilla begging, hit and run
back to the lot, clutching a bill or two,
while timid friends wait the results.
His wheedling like a mosquito’s keen
worries the ear of a cop pacing
among the cholla on the other side.

So here they come, cop and manager —
a young guy already bald, crabbed
as the trees in this desert waste.
“Damn you . . . !” aiming his finger
like a pistol, and the beggar backs
to a curb beyond the property line.

The cop follows, friendly enough,
pats the man’s back.  Under the tree
a woman cries Pishuni, soul-stealer.
She’s maybe thirty, looks fifty — dead
eyes and hollow cheeks like the farm
wives in Walker Evans’ photographs.

A squad car arrives and they cuff
the man, then the woman for good
measure.  She chants curses like a nun
at a protest rally.  The others flee
pushing carts, dragging garbage bags,
to the safety of a strip mall church.

The cop returns to his cigarette
and the manager to his kitchen,
and the refugees drift back
with bags and carts to the sad shade
of that stunted tree and a voice
calling, “May I take your order?”