Purple Toenails

Charles Cantrell

-For D.D.

Dan always wore a black leather jacket
and wore toe-less shoes
because, he said, “My toes are beautiful,
and I want people to see them.”
He once recited a poem he had written for me
while he painted his toes. I said, “You know
I’m not gay.” “Yeah,” he said, “but can’t two
unrelated men love each other not based on sex?”
Though we were best friends, I grinned
and switched the conversation to the wild
turnings and metaphors of “The Drunken Boat,”
Dan’s favorite Rimbaud poem.
We both loved Rimbaud and tried hard
to imitate his bizarre imagery.

A few years later, as Dan was dying of AIDS
I went to see him in a hospice. I held his hand.
He whispered, “I am no longer a wild river,
and I have no control.” I wanted to say, yes you do,
but I couldn’t. In Goodwill, a few months
after Dan passed, I saw a black leather jacket
that looked exactly like Dan’s. I ran my finger
down one lapel the way Dan used to do,
then I flashed to a day on the bus when Dan
opened his Rimbaud and said, “Listen to this:
I drifted on a river I could not control,
No longer guided by the bargemen’s ropes.
They were captured by howling Indians
(Dan’s voice rose) who nailed them naked to
colored stakes.” A woman ahead of us, a stole,
tight as a furbearing snake around her neck,
turned and said, “Please be quiet or I’ll tell
the driver.” “But I wanted everyone to hear this,”
Dan said to me, and slammed the book shut.


Charles Cantrell has poems in recent or forthcoming issues of Mudfish, Confrontation, Rumble Fish Quarterly, Mobius, Citron Review, Seven Circle Press, West Texas Literary Review, Appalachian Heritage, Pinyon Review, and Miramar Poetry Journal. A book of poetry, Wild Wreckage, will be published by Cervena Barva Press in 2019. He’s been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. Over the past 30 years he’s been in residency several times at Ragdale and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.