The Accomplices

James Lasdun

A small man thumbed us down and sidled in
Dusting the seat with a quick flick first, his wrist
Thin enough to snap like a candy bar;
Runt-of-the-litter frame, mid-twenties, shivering,
A little drunk, ‘You folks
Headed for Cromer’s Hatch?’ We weren’t,
But the day being cold, and this good turn so easy,
We said we’d take him just the same.
He thanked us, then with a sly glance at the mirror,
Added ‘I just got out
From the St Johnsbury Penitentiary,
I was in for some shit I did.’

The road he led us on fell steeply twisting
Down so far from the winter altitudes
We hit Vermont’s fifth season two weeks early;
Mud season, poverty’s own, its carnage festival;
Our four wheels thrashed in a cold lava
As we inched a dream-slow progress
Into an unenchanted land
Of trailers on rotting blocks, junked sno-mobiles,
Cracked satellite dishes, the five-car households,
Each car deeper in slurry than the last,
Till we came to a low-slung house with a line of smoke
Wobbling on its chimney, and a yard
Matted with flattened stalks
Fleshy and yellow from the winter.

‘You can stop here mister.’
Our passenger climbed out,
Thanked us again, then leaned back down to the car
And whispered with a confidential grin
‘Reckon my woman’s in for a shock, kid too,
I ain’t supposed to visit since what I did.’
There was a moment while he let himself in;
A puzzled hush; the body’s
Quicker apprehension than the mind’s
Of something not right – till the meaning of his words
Welled up into their sounds and crystalled out
Stealing across us like a film of ice
Urging my arm to the wheel to heave it round
And move us out of there before we saw,
Before we could see the literal
Matter of his words, his what I did,
As if a willed blindness could dispose
Of any lesson in complicity;
The inextricable bad in good intentions
That shadows them from the start – the counterpoise
That levers them up into light;
As if we didn’t fear our own darknesses enough
To have dreamed already the child
Who stepped out from the doorway
As our tires whirled, moving us too slowly
Not to watch its approach,
Apple-cheeked first, but up closer
More pumpkin than apple;
Gashed and swollen like an old pumpkin,
A Jack o’ Lantern without the candle-flicker,
Welted legs rickety as bamboo,
Tottering towards us to ascertain
What manner of creature held sway
Over its father’s comings and goings,
While from our held breath we might have been watching
An opossum or another of those shy animals
Rumoured to be in abundance but seldom seen.