American Portrait (13)

by Ken Harnisch

Ambrose lost and took the path down to the sea

We watched him go, the rain slicker wrapped around

His knees like a coiling python, glistening

In the maelstrom. We drank Molson’s in the

Green bottles, and listened to the rain.


It rattled against the tin roof like

The hot drums of the Masai

Hard, frenetic, endless with its possibilities

Of becoming Noah’s Flood

Or boiling our insides out

As we heard the waves come calling


Johnny Slats had three sevens

And Maurie had the chips piled high

Against the felt on his side of the table

And me, I was almost on a roll, I could feel it

When Ambrose noticed the dock light

Was swaying in the wind

And he frowned when no one

Moved, especially when Maurie said

“Let the damn thing go till morning.”


Poor old Ambrose

Taking it all so seriously then

His position as lighthouse keeper

Causing him to rise and say, “They pay us

For this, you know.” And we all looked at him blankly

And Maurie asked him what we got,

Exactly, for fixing a firefly in a hurricane


“Light going crazy like that,” he said in his

Hard New England voice, “it’ll keep the strays from going out

On the water. Only fools and fisherman in this soup tonight

Anyway. See that light a-dancin’ and a flashin’,

They’ll know to keep their distance

Smart those Gloucestermen, smart that way

They are.”


Ambrose rose, getting on the gear

Trying to shame us

But I had two kings and Johnny Slats

Was bluffing with aces high

And the pot got higher with him betting

Like an ass. Maurie shrugged and got up for

More beer and said to Ambrose,

“Sit my man, or go make coffee


It’ll be light before you know it.”


But Ambrose bit his pipe and said, “You laggards!

I’ll tell you what

Draw for it

Low man loses and fixes the light.”

He pressed his finger to the deck

And said “Cut the cards, boy,” to me


I looked up at the other two and

Maurie said, why not

So Johnny pulled a card and turned it over

Then Maurie, then Me

The deuce of clubs stared back at me

And my heart stopped cold


Ambrose flipped the King of Spades

In the middle of the table

Cursing through his pipe, he snarled,

“Kid’s too green to go out side.

Kid’s too fawkin’ green.”


And Maurie shrugged

While Johnny counted stacks of dwindling chips

And I just sat there, with bee-bee eyes of fear

You bastahds, Ambrose said and threw open the door

Scattering cards like paper chaff

Tipping bottles to the stone


The door slammed behind Ambrose

And we watched the yellow slicker bobbing in the

Halo of the light hung on the door

Until we couldn’t see it

And no one spoke till

Maurie got some beers

And Johnny dealt more cards.


And an hour later, when we all went outside,

Calling Ambrose’s name

The rain tore at our skin

The wind clawed at our bones

And I noticed

The light wasn’t bobbing


But the yellow slicker

Was nowhere to be seen


Posted on 04/12/2004
Copyright © 2023 Ken Harnisch

Member Comments on this Poem
Posted by Kate Demeree on 04/19/04 at 04:49 AM

I sat here a long while after reading in awe of the way you spin the tale. Wonderful! Ambrose is such an unusual name... and adds something to the tale. Good to see you posting once again.

Posted by Paganini Jones on 06/24/04 at 07:11 PM

:) Great tale, and great to find another American portrait here. This one stands out for me - mature writing

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