Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

The Man Who Mapped Descansos

The Man Who Mapped Descansos
by Alan Birkelbach, from New and Selected Works


The fold in his felt hat
was as pure as a taco’s.
He always tried to have
shined shoes.

He kept an old loose-leaf notebook,
where he had one page for each marker
telling about the day he found it
and what debris had been settled on it.

He felt that moving slow and deliberate,
driving always under the posted speed,
walking with straight shoulders to each
was what was wanted.

He knew that at the moment of tragic death
sometimes the soul stays around to be visited
and that when enough honor has been paid
then they will finally let go.

Ah, the descansos, the roadside markers for the dead:
Luis May He Rest in Peace
Always Missed
She is with the Angels.

He kept careful track;
one especially venomous corner had three crosses.
They were all unmarked but they were stone
and he wondered at first if they were an advertisement

for what, though, he wasn’t sure.
He liked the wooden markers better because
they weathered well,
with fibrous wrinkles.

Each one had a smell he said:
most were flowery and sweet
but a few were kind of salty,
and some had a deeper scent

that made the back of his tongue curl up,
all sour and thick.
Here on the border road
he had filled a notebook this year alone.

His ’65 Chevy with the bald tires
was always washed.
He felt like he needed to look good.
He imagined that, when he drove

with the windows down
he could hear low voices talking to him
because they all knew him
and they stroked his arms with the wind.

The one he liked best
was one he found that had
the rattlesnake skin wrapped around it.
He felt like that family understood.

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