musing on the difference

Carl DennisThe New Yorker, 4.8.16


Two Lives

In my other life the B-17 my father is piloting

Is shot down over Normandy

And my mother raises her sons alone

On her widow's pension and on what she earns

As a nurse at the local hospital, a sum

That pays for a third-floor walkup

In a neighborhood that's seen better days.

I play stickball after school in the lot

Behind the laundry. I come home bruised 

From fistfights and snowball fights

With boys who live in the tenement on the corner.

Not once do I play with the boy I am

In this life, whose father, too old for the draft,

Starts a paint company in a rented basement

Which almost goes under after a year

And then is saved, as the war continues,

By a steady flow of government contracts

That allows my mother to retire from nursing

And devote herself to work with the poor.

I find our quiet neighborhood of handsome houses

And shady streets crushingly uneventful.

No surprise I spend hours each day turning the pages

Of stories about trolls, wizards, giants,

Wandering knights, and captive princesses.

In my other life, I have to leave high school

To bolster the family income as lab boy

In the building attached to the factory that in this life

My father owns. I clean test tubes and beakers,

With a break for stacking cans on the loading dock

Or driving the truck to make deliveries.

In this life it takes only one summer

Of work at the office, addressing announcements

Of a coating tougher than any made by competitors,

To decide that the real world, so called,

Is overrated, compared to the world of novels,

Where every incident is freighted with implications

For distinguishing apparent success from actual.

No wonder I'm leaning toward a profession

Where people can earn a living by talking

In class about books they love. Meanwhile,

In my other life, after helping to bring the union

To a non-union shop, I rise in the ranks

To become shop steward, and then,

Helped by a union scholarship,

I earn a degree in labor law.

I bring home casebooks on weekends

To the very block where I happen to live

Ensconced in this life, here in a gray-green house

With dark-brown trim. If I don't answer the bell

On weekends in summer, I'm in the garden

Strolling the shady path between the maples,

Musing on the difference between a life

Deficient in incident and a life uncluttered.

Seated at a patio table, I write a letter

Asking a friend what book has he read

In the last few months that has opened his eyes

On a subject that's likely to interest me.

Meanwhile, across the street, in the garden

Of my other life, I can often be found

Hoeing the rutabaga and beans and cabbage

That I plan to share with neighbors in the hope of planting

The seeds of communal feelings more hardy

Than any known to sprout here before.

It won't be long till I knock at the door of the house

Where in this life I'm at my desk preparing a class

On the solitude in the novels of the Romantics.

Do I say to myself it's one more stranger

Eager to sell me something or make a convert,

Or do I go down to see who's there?