NARRATIVE IN WHICH OUR FAITHLESS SPEAKER STANDS ATOP THE WATER TOWER OF HIS CHILDHOOD IN RURAL ILLINOIS WATCHING THE WORLD END
Word has it the rise of Lake Michigan
surrounds Chicago’s skyline. It looks like a Viking burial—
drowned skyscrapers drifting off like islands on fire.
Windy City, Second City,
it always wanted to leave Illinois. When it waved back
at the rest of our nowhere,
it was not an acknowledgment of longing.
Now it’s just us—you and me. We climb to the top
of the water tower like we did with different people
who have passed through us the way the moon sleeps
in the backseat of an empty car until morning
during that useless mystery known as high school—
that place where time promises not to end,
but does, inexplicably and sudden.
I’ve got one hand on the railing
wrapped with fistfuls of rust and one hand laced with yours.
Hundreds of robins have gathered
on the grain silos in the distance and we can barely make out
their panicked calls through the rain.
They’ve never seen so much water turn violent.
The water rises and the cornstalks look like wicks
jutting through the surface.
If I were capable of reaching down from this height,
I’d strike them. I’d show you how a thousand flames
can dance on water before being swallowed.
Lightning, though, like a yellow-leather bullwhip
snapped in every direction reminds us what is real.
Smaller tractors are swept up in the aleatoric current
along with thresher trailers and the steel arms
of pesticide equipment. Beneath our feet, they brawl
and mangle with the bottom of the tower.
The smashed quarrel of metal looks like the wreckage
of an industrial arc we were told would save us,
or some giant mechanical whale that would swallow us
if we doubted anyone but ourselves.
But we doubted, we believed only in ourselves.
And I’m willing to go down with you.
Even though the wind scares you in this moment.
There’s always something left to say about the wind.
I see fear explode behind your eyes
like a car careening off a bridge.
All our words and desires are falling through us.
We’re soaked through and frozen.
We don’t say anything
when the bowling alley to the south of us topples over—
that place where we met once a week,
where what we struck down—we praised and celebrated.
Now I must imagine the bricks
and balls sinking to the bottom of the submerged fields
like treasure, worthless and chipped.
The bowling pins bobbing and floating
like the bodies of paralyzed fish shocked to the surface.
Our whole lives were spent tilling and cultivating this dirt.
We planned on being buried side-by-side in this dirt.
The one thing we shouldn’t miss when we’re dead is dirt.
I’m not ready to be buried under water, you cry. I don’t want to drown.
Just pray, I lie, because in moments of finality our beliefs change
often and without discretion.
And the carbon windmills spin wild with their own anxiety.
And the dairy factory’s tin warehouses and receiving tanks
collapse and clang against each other like thunder,
like the crass caterwaul of some unknown animal.
And car horns, along with the shattering sound of metal,
shriek and yowl as the other people we love speed away
in search of a hillier landscape, one above the flooding plains,
where they will have hope for rescue instead of being flown over,
or where they can hold on just a little longer.
And the radio tower’s signal flickers for the last time
like giving up.
Out here, you can see and hear the end for miles.
And the earth moans
like a prayer answered
in the wrong way.
Listen to John read "Narrative in Which our Faithless Speaker Stands Atop the Water Tower of His Childhood in Rural Illinois watching the World End" below:
JOHN MCCARTHY is the author of Scared Violent Like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which won the Jake Adam York Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and TriQuarterly, among others. John is the 2016 winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Poetry. He lives in Illinois where he serves as an Associate Editor of RHINO.