Human Figures

by Mark Doty

Mark Doty

On the Number 15 bus on Potrero Hill, San Francisco, a morning of clouds
shifting like ripples on silk, a black man a few seats in front of me covers his

with Chinese newspapers and smooths the rumpled sheets across his thighs
over and over. I think he’s hiding something beneath them, himself perhaps,

until looking directly out the windows with their clouds he begins to tear the
sheets of newspaper in half
and rolls the delicate black moss

of calligraphy into a cone, twists it into something intricate between his broad
hands, something he doesn’t want anyone to see.
Then he places what ever he’s made

on the seat beside him and covers it, covertly, another sheet of news, and tears
and rolls, furiously, as though he can’t make one thing and leave it alone.

I think he’s seen me watching,
and I try not to look as he keeps rolling faster, till we reach a stop and a quick
gust of wind from the door

lifts the paper veil just enough to reveal what he’s made. Once, in Boston, a
vagrant lay on one of the long stone benches by the Public Library, bleeding.

I don’t know what had happened;
a little crescent of people clustered, waiting for the ambulance
to work its way through traffic.

I didn’t want to be like them,
didn’t want to look, and a sheet of newspaper, a page of the Globe ripping
down Boylston, skittered across the red slick of him and tumbled

toward me, the stain already drying on four columns of news. Soon
it wouldn’t even be recognizable, the blood in its morning edition
blowing across my shoes. Suppose the ambulance hadn’t come and he’d kept
on bleeding, a stain larger than his own body darkening the cement and all the

blown along those windy steps?
Imagine he’d kept on publishing himself until his outline were larger than
anything the police could chalk, uncontained,

the shapeless bulletin of the news you can’t buy, though you can’t help but
read it.
And the man in San Francisco twists his papers into dolls, tiny human forms

like ginseng roots floating
in Chinatown windows, long limbs streaming out behind them—figures
into something intimate, something to hide.

My Alexandria

Last updated December 21, 2022