Winter afternoons, bored in math,
I'd ask to go downstairs to talk with you,
As if I knew exactly who you were.
You had a corner office off the library
And a job I never exactly understood,
And a desk that was too small for you.
The chin beard suggested
There'd been a reenactment that weekend
In one of those little towns
You must have known so well –
Quincy, Ottawa, Joliet, Alton, Galesburg.
Their courthouse squares.
You were still coming back from
What you'd gone away to become.
We would have spoken of Lincoln.
This was our connection, inevitable
As the fact that you, born in Illinois
And growing to his height,
Would grow up to impersonate him.
That he had once stood in the square
Where families ate ice cream now,
Their tongues flashing
Pink and blue,
Made that town mean something
To me, even if all it meant was that
That had happened there.
It seemed to me that to you
It must have meant even more.
I thought you wanted to drag all that
History out of books and bear it
Into our world, to set it walking about
In your actual bones, to confront us
With the fact that he had actually lived,
Had stood exactly that tall,
Had said those words in that order.
In doing so, you were making us
Make a decision – we had to
Either pretend with you
That you were him,
Or live on in our fallen world
Where no one was that tall,
That eloquent, that honest.
Long before I learned that
You were grooming boys like me
For sex, I felt groomed by you
For some other reason, some need
That wouldn't have gotten you arrested,
But that I have a harder time
Forgiving you for.
Why was I sitting in your office
Those long afternoons of senior year,
When even the bullies had become becalmed
And the school stood around us
Like a dream done up in brick?
Did you really care about my future,
Which would mean, naturally,
Leaving you and that town behind,
Or did you just pretend to care
The way you pretended to be him?
I already felt the pull of the great world.
I wanted to go out in space,
You wanted to go back in time.
We sat across from one another,
Restless to leave ourselves behind.
It was easier for you.
The suit was hanging in your closet
At home, the hat perched on the shelf.
For me, the transformation
Was invisible, internal.
In college, I invited you to drive down
To Bloomington to visit a seminar
I was taking on Lincoln.
I'd arranged it with the professor
That he and I wouldn't acknowledge you
When you walked in
In order to see if we could make
A dozen football players and sorority girls
Believe that all our talk of Lincoln
Had conjured him, as if that
Seminar was a séance
And here he was, risen in the flesh,
To tell us what we were
I can still see you, not him, walking in,
Taking your hat off as if preparing to say
Something solemn, then taking your seat
At the seminar table and gazing
With great interest through your pince-nez
At the professor, who hadn't ceased
Talking about him. Him. Not you.
But the football players who'd fallen asleep
Over the pages of Herndon's Life of Lincoln
They hadn't read, and the sorority girls
Who said nothing all year
Only to rouse themselves in the final weeks
Of the semester in fear for their GPAs,
Which was really the fear that
Their fathers in Schaumburg and Barrington
Would cancel their credit cards,
Stared like children.
No. Not children. Children
Still believe. Stared
Like undergrads who've given up
Believing in anything,
But have no choice
But to believe their eyes.
Only Colin McCoy and I knew
It was you. You never once
Deceived me, George.
How could you have?
When I wrote, predictably, an elegy
For Lincoln, I dedicated and sent it
To you, as if you might use it
To better imitate him, as if your goal
All along had been to disappear totally
Into what you could never really be,
Could only approximate, the way
They say two parallel lines will near
And near one another forever
But never touch.
Had I known how much
That poem would mean to you,
I never would have written it.
For years it yoked us together.
It was the sole reason, when all other reasons
Disintegrated, for you to write to me.
You needed permission to republish it
Somewhere, or you'd just gotten it framed.
It meant to you what it could never
Mean to me. I'd given it to you,
It was yours, but you kept giving it
Back, as if there was something
Wrong with it that needed fixing.
At the sesquicentennial of the debate,
You invited me to read the poem.
I hated how, having given it to you once,
I had to give it back to you again,
Even after I'd ceased believing in what it said.
The older I got, the less impressed
I was with your fidelity to him
As it became clear to me
That you never needed
Those glasses that folded
So neatly at the bridge
It makes me tired thinking of the care
You must have taken with the suits,
The way you must have leaned
Over the sink to shape the beard
To match that harrowing photograph
Taken in 1864, even the plate glass
The other day my brother called,
Asked me was I sitting down.
It was your last masquerade.
I worried about family, only
To be told that
You'd been arrested
For child pornography.
While my brother and I were still talking,
I pulled up the link he'd sent me,
Touched your face.
In your mugshot you're disheveled,
Wearing a white t-shirt.
No pince-nez, no top hat, no overcoat.
Just the beard, bright white,
The white of the t-shirt.
The police report tells me
Which means you've outlived him
By seven years.
You couldn't quit, could you?
Having spent you're life becoming him,
Becoming him has become who you are.
Perhaps you thought of yourself
As the Lincoln who survived,
Or, better yet, as the Lincoln
Who had nothing to survive,
Booth slinking back down the stairs
To stand in the back of the dark theater,
Watching the play.
I scrolled down to the bottom
Of the article, found
The predictable comments:
"Four Score and Seven Years in Prison."
"Good luck with that whole emancipation thing."
Seeing the headline,
They take heart in knowing
There is at least one person on earth
They're better than.
Me? I see you in your house
In the middle of the night,
Your wife lying in the sweet
Stupidity of sleep.
You're wearing your glasses.
In the lenses, the same boy doubled
As if he wasn't enough.