Namaste

by TJ Sandella Issue: Fall 2015
Listen here, brother. I was in Afghanistan and Iraq, he says,
pointing at what is, presumably, his veterans card. Admittedly,
I don’t demonstrate due diligence to validate the authenticity of his credentials—
nodding in approval at what could just as easily be
a doctored gym membership or expired library card. Nor do I consider the unlikelihood
that he served in both or even one of the wars—he’s sixty, at least—
my brain clouded by panic as it always is when confronted
with questions to which there are no right answers. Is he trying to con me? If I let him,
does that make me a good person? A weak one? He’s cornered me in the parking lot
of the yoga studio, a stone’s throw away from Zen. Listen here, he says,

I gotta’ get to the VA office by 8’oclock, and I ain’t got no money.
I shown the bus driver my card, too, but he said
nobody rides for free—not even American heroes. You believe that shit?
Two wars, shrapnel in my ass, and I can’t hop a bus? Listen here—you just give me
a quick ride over to the office and God will bless you, surely
He will. Here, right in front of me, a person in need. Namaste, we say at the beginning
and end of each yoga class. I bow to you. The light in me recognizes and honors
the light in you. Shanti, we say. The Peace which passeth understanding. How can I stomach
to say, Sorry, can’t help you—as I usually do—and then bow to the taut lawyer
who’s just double-parked her Audi?

Once, many years ago, when he was younger than I am now,
my father was cruising around campus
in Youngstown, Ohio—his windows open, music loud—when a man on the sidewalk
flagged him down, asked for a lift. I imagine my father leaned over
and popped open the passenger door with that beautiful looseness and naivety
particular to the 1960s. A block later he had a gun to his head. He’s told me this story
so many times that I’m no longer sure what it signifies. There’s a lesson,
but he wears it like a uniform, like a medal, like a flag—proud enough of his brush with death
to make a son want to repeat his mistakes. But because I am not brave,

I say, I have somewhere I have to be, holding up my yoga mat
as if an apology, but I’ll cover your fare for the next bus. He shifts from foot to foot.
For the past two weeks snow has fallen and turned to ice, fallen and turned to ice—the earth
like layered cake. His lips are cracked and bloody, and I think his blue clawed fingers
would shatter if I shook his gloveless hand. I don’t. He reaches into his pocket
and pulls out an envelope, points at the return address. It’s only thirty blocks,
he says, I won’t make it in time if I wait for the next bus. It’s President’s Day,

though it doesn’t strike me that the VA office would probably close by six regardless,
and surely for the holiday. I can’t do it, I say, though we both know what I mean.
I pull out my wallet, where the world has tried
and failed to lay siege to a ten and a twenty that have survived for weeks
under my vigilant protection. I slide out the ten and hand it to him. He studies it
as if trying to pinpoint the moment that this became our lives. It’ll cost six bucks
just to catch the bus, and I ain’t had nothin’ to eat in two days, he says. He eyes the twenty
and licks his lips. I’m hungry, he says. Now, I’m certain this has been his plan all along,

but I no longer care. I hand him the twenty and point him towards a cheap deli.
I make it to the studio just in time for class and find a spot in the back
next to the lawyer. Namaste, I say, though what I really mean is:
We don’t need a card to prove we’ve been to war. Shanti, I say, though what I really mean is:

Who will save us?


TJ Sandella is the recipient of an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry, a William Matthews Poetry Prize, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets, Poet Lore, Passages North, the South Carolina Review, the Chattahoochee Review, the Raleigh Review, and Hotel Amerika, among many others. He lives with his puppy, Rufio, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he’s a soapbox spokesman for the Rust Belt’s revitalization.