Dead ant.

I saw this ant,
this mangled, flattened speck of a thing
frozen on page 23
of Beautiful Souls
and suddenly
I was no longer thinking about Paul Grüninger
and the Jews he saved from certain death
in 1938.
I was thinking about the person
who read this book before me.

Who killed the ant?
A student on the HUB lawn, I bet.
Cramming for a test on Eyal Press’ evocative portraits,
simple acts of humanity
that appeared extraordinary
in desperate, confusing times,
But more concerned with evening her tan
and the boys playing catch nearby,
their T-shirts draped at their skinny hips
by a corner tucked into their shorts
as they silently graded her.

Maybe a frazzled mom at Spring Creek Park
sitting on a blanket near the sand pit
where her kids were throwing dirt
and not sharing
as she tried to squeeze three minutes of leisurely reading
into an afternoon crammed with
and grapes
and bathroom runs
and tiny ants
wandering across her rumpled throne.

When I was a kid library books
had this magical pocket in the back
that held the names of all the people
who’d read the words before you.
I would study the names and the penmanship and the dates,
who they were and what they thought.
Will I like this book as much as Steven Cross did?
Mira Schultz checked this out twice in two months.
A little heart dotted her “i” both times.
Who dribbled something on page 16?
Which one underlined “I shall always be with you”?
Are they with me now?
Will I be with the next one who reads this book?

The ant is with me.
I bought the ant and its final resting place
for 3 dollars at a used bookstore and café,
where it smells like knowing,
and wistfulness,
and coffee.
New books are special,
but the best books are used.
The best words are worn, broken in.
Edited. Enlightened. Entertaining. Endless.
Reread, shared, creased, stained, memorized.

When I write something
and send it out into the world
I reread it, sometimes fifty times,
every time from someone else’s point of view.
I scrunch my brain into someone else’s skull
And try to read my own words with their eyes.
I don’t know if it is an exercise in empathy
or a painstaking devolution into madness.
But it is important to me,
to hear my message hit different ears.
Because what I need to say
and what I want you to hear
are sometimes two different things.
But I can’t know that until I do both.

We cannot see fingerprints on words or poems
or books
but they exist.
These stories we read and borrow and dog-ear
and drop tears onto
and underline passages from
and buy and sell
and inadvertently crush ants with
are important,
But no more important than the recognition
and reverence
for the fact that we are sharing them
with other people.
Strangers we are now connected to,
in the way that we know
some of the same sentences
they’ve sounded out in their minds.
How extraordinary is that.
We know what stories they’ve taken in,
the character of Grüninger
they, too, have contemplated.
We share that now.
We, the people who have held this copy of
Beautiful Souls.

So thank you, ant.
You did not die in vain.

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