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Among Schoolchildren

For Father Edmund Harris

The one-story houses were painted aqua, violet, orange, pistachio.
I spoke to the taxi driver in broken Spanish.
I was becoming a priest, I told him, God willing—Soy un sacerdote
(the tense wrong, the article unnecessary, the r rolled too strong)—
as we drove over ruts, pot holes, and alongside hungry dogs.
Much of the taxi’s interior had been removed.
Time slowed that summer in San Pedro Sula.
Around the rotary, legless men shook their tambourines,
epileptics convulsed, and the blind tapped their sticks
through donkey excrement. Blue mountains and fields of banana trees
shadowed the city’s edges. There were the many poor
on the grassless riverbank assembling houses out of rubbish.
I had come to work in the orphanage in Villa Florencia.
Inside the ten foot wall with barbed wire, behind the metal gate,
guards fingered their pistols like bibles,
and seventy orphaned girls politely greeted strident Christians.
One girl had been found on a coconut truck.
She had lived on coconut juice since birth,
had trouble speaking, preferred not to be held.
Two sisters had been left at a street corner on a sheet of cardboard;
their mother told them to wait, then never came back.
It was a landscape both porous and uninviting.
Half-way up one mountain was an enormous white Coca-Cola sign.
Rain steadily fell against the tin roofs and colored the chapel windows to plum.
Sweat colored my T-shirt the color of a steeped tea-bag.
The more I spoke to the girls the more insistent they became,
making fun of my accent, saying in English: What’s my name? Say my name.
At night, grease shone on my cheeks, lit by the Coca-Cola sign.
The clock on the night-stand was a face I could not reach.
A world widened in me. But what of my Protestant professors
rearranging furniture in their well-appointed heads,
hunched in their sepia-colored libraries?
In the dark of my room, I pondered them.
Was it true, what they said, that a priest is a house lit up?

This poem appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.