High John the Conquerer

Joseph Gastiger grew up in Westbury, a working class town on Long Island, attended SUNY Stony Brook and the University of Iowa, and did graduate work at Colorado State University where he was part of a cohort that included poets Yusef Komunyakaa, William Michael Ryan, Jay P. White and John Bradley. He received a PhD from Northern Illinois University, where he subsequently taught writing and literature for a number of years, and was coordinator of its Honors Program. His poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including Princeton Arts ReviewSycamore ReviewTriQuarterlyNew Voices: Poetry and Fiction from Colorado State University, Benchmark: Anthology of Contemporary Illinois Poetry, among others. His first book, Loose Talk, was published by Lost Horse Press in 2012. He lives with his wife in DeKalb, Illinois, where he is pastor of the First Congregational Church of Christ, and, as W.C. Williams said of himself, the happy genius of his household.

High John the Conquerer

Look it, we all could use some help, she slurs.  Ain’t like you doing wrong—and I relent, I can’t go back there empty-handed.  I spill my quarters on the table; wouldn’t you know she can’t resist a crooked smile.  She grabs a root out of a drawer I can’t see all that well, but it’s the second oldest single thing God ever made.  Just because Lazarus was raised by one who’d never gone to school doesn’t mean juju’s something you or I can do.  The tools of my trade are a Remington rifle and a bandana.  That woman smiles, and I feel as if some spell’s peeling away; another gulp of bourbon may just clear my mind.  Yet as I glide out through the door, I nearly bump some other fool with honestly no shoulders whatsoever.  He stands there fluttering his eyes like someone snatching lucky numbers from the air. What makes you think you’re better off?, hollers a shadow down the street, though I suspect there won’t be anybody there.  I hardly know this stretch of town.  I got the address off a scrap of paper Lulu gave to me before she poked her personal black hole in my memory.


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