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Poetry and Medicine
August 5, 1998

For Friends Missing in Action

Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor

JAMA. 1998;280(5):396C. doi:10.1001/jama.280.5.396

When I take my meddling friend for coffee,
he picks at paper napkins, shredding lint
like snow. Before Mary Jane pours refills,
Joe asks how long I've been up, how many
empty beer cans I've recycled, how many
crows and skunks I've shot. He knows whose daughters
are overdue, whose son's gone overseas.
Squeezing his mug, he gripes about lawyers,
tells me which older widows he's seeing,
which of the younger have money, which ones
seem faithful to their holy ghosts. Like this
week by week, even when other buddies
drop by, the booth full of elbows, aisle blocked
by extra chairs. Only Earl smokes, ash trays
banished. Earl paces in the parking lot,
puffing, staring at nothing. Joe asks Ray
about Earl's work, his jitters and weight loss.
Ray only frowns, and Joe falls back and sighs.
I read Joe's whispers as signs, those folded arms
as a warning. When Earl returns, I catch his eye,
and Earl stares back and nods, as if he's seen
the clues I saw, bamboo nicked by a flicked
machete, the oozing stalks and swarms of bees.
Flicking his eyes between us, scooping the lint
and squeezing, Joe leans close. What's up? he pumps.
He stares past us at something far away,
angry if one of us says Nothing or only shrugs.
Nothing we could say would be enough today.

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