The Payoff

Every day with less effort, 
     I’m buying back 
my compassion, softening 
     my heart 
with each exercise of kindness, 
     filling my spiritual 
bank account to the brim with these 
     piecemeal deposits.

I give to make amends, 
     to partake in 
this hidden opportunity—
     to soften 
the plight of anonymous 
for whom compassion is 
     sorely lacking.

There is so much desperation 
     in the air, so many 
homeless, so many bums, drifters, 
     lost souls 
with more appearing every day. 
a failure in his every endeavor,
     A bedraggled one 
extends his hand from down below 
     on the pavement,

I give over and above my doubt, 
     my suspicion. 
My inflated morality sizes him up 
     or judgment. 
Is he deserving? I don’t really know. 
     On the spot 
a snap investigation is underway. 

I give knowing I am paying 
     so this man can eat 
or drink, smoke, shoot, 
     or snort, or just to 
enhance his catch for the day. 
     I am not naïve. 
I have known men who panhandle 
     for a living, 
who wear war medals found 
     in junk shops, 
who toy with my generosity, 
     who coax me 
to give more than I 
     had intended. 

Mostly, I give to forestall my own 
     possible fate, 
to sweeten the pot with small 
     down payments 
to a punishing authority, to extract 
     a divine promise  
to cushion me should my 
     fate fall flat.  

I give to forestall a painful 
     string of bad luck, 
to soften it with these deeds 
     to the anonymous 
who lack human compassion, 
     who are desperate 
to touch the heart of humanity, 
     for love 
in a tangible form. 

I give small coins that jingle 
     as they fall 
into his tiny cardboard container. 
     He nods when he sees 
the flash and flutter of paper money. 
     A restrained smile rises 
in the corners of his world weary face, 
     though only for a moment. 
We are not intended to truly connect, 
     or touch, or speak, 
and he knows better than
     to proffer his grimy hand. 

I return the nod, framing the exchange.  
     Both he and I know nothing 
          is certain. 
All is in play. The gods 
reward and punish whimsically.
     Today he, 
          tomorrow me—
Better to assuage the demons—

Dennis Dubois has published poems in Bee Museum, Curved House, and The Projectionist’s Playground. He is self-taught over many years, and is preparing a collection of poems and a first work of fiction. He is an American expatriate, living in Copenhagen.