I felt it—trucks tearing up the marsh grass, cattails being chopped down, palmettos flattened—long before I saw any glow rise over the tree line. I figured it had to be a battalion setting up for some kind of assault exercise or oil men clearing ground for a platform. I only hauled over there to make sure nothing got out of hand. Lights and yelling, just some standard human miscreance, until I got a good look at everything through the bushes. It was a big, cross-eyed dude making all the noise with a roped-up alligator draped over his shoulders. He had a microphone in one hand and a 2x4 in the other. I could definitely tell by the way he was hollering and bouncing around that the gator was in some serious trouble, so I marched into the scene without thinking any of it through. Before the crew could react, I snatched the alligator off the man’s shoulders and pitched the guy into the muddy lake, yapping and wailing and still going on about how nobody, not even some giant swamp monster, was gonna keep him from busting loose on somebody’s head come Friday night at the civic auditorium. Pretty soon after that I saw all the lights go off behind me and heard the trucks roll out. That gator finally woke up and slid off the bank into the water. And I enjoyed the hell out of the rest of my night with my back against a cypress tree, just grinning like a baby-faced hero
No matter how your knees ache,
or how many times the forwards
have told you to keep it
tight, there’s always that moment
every game when the pass hits your hands
and your eyes find yards and yards
of space behind the other team’s pack
and the breeze is right there with you
pushing everything down the pitch
and begging you, just one more time,
to kick the ball towards all that open grass
and chase it like life’s still a downhill game.
Diego was the new kid at school and claimed he was the best kicker. So we rolled him a fast ball and he kicked it past the basketball courts, past the fence, even broke the line separating the sky from the ground. Both his shoes came off when his foot met the ball. Then the hair on his legs. Then the meat on his bones. Everything fell hard and he took off to run the bases.
If we ever get the chance to ask him how he did it, we will. We’re still waiting for the skeleton to stop or dissolve, whichever comes first. The bell told us to go inside but the last thing we heard was the rattle of bones circling the pavement and the flowers we drew with chalk just that morning.
image: Jim Shoenbill
Mike Bernier was a dead shot from the corner.
I’d feed him on a fast break
knowing he’d make it good.
Like me, he had an attitude.
Coach Kudo kept him after practice for drills.
My friend Richard caught Kudo one night
pummeling Mike in the showers.
Halfway through the season
Mike didn’t show up for school.
Two weeks later the principal announced
on the crackling loud-speaker
Mike had died of a mysterious kidney ailment.
Mike’s old man was a disciplinarian.
Richard said he’d told Kudo to keep the kid in line.
It could have been Kudo or his dad
who did Mike in—hitting him one time too many
where the bruises wouldn’t show.
In those days we didn’t question
A fourteen-year-old dying
of a mysterious kidney ailment
though we all wondered aloud about Kudo
who pushed us up against the lockers
for fooling around in Health
and lifted us by our hair
for failing to tuck in our shirts.
Louis Cook was the one who finally KO’d Kudo
one afternoon in the parking lot after school.
That Kudo never reported it should’ve told us something.
Me, he liked because I’d suckered a guard from Dedham
who got away with fouling me under the boards.
Take it easy, Tiger, Coach Kudo said to me on the bench,
his smile more of a sneer. We understood each other.
I smiled back.
When the Bulls Lose
some miserable fucks
dress up their misery—
they teach it language.
it mouths along to sad songs
& dresses in all black.
silly men mistake misery
for a real life being
when it’s a cheap party trick—
i’m not judging tho.
my misery is an ugly animal too.
call it fandom or nostalgia.
all i know is when The Bulls lose
my misery makes me kneel or play dead—
it’s me on my knees begging for a treat.
Jimmy Butler was Right
maybe there are some truths
we can’t hear
from certain mouths.
some truths we don’t need
to hear at all.
Jimmy Butler was right
to tell the Wolves they were sorry
without him. it doesn’t make him
less wrong. when i was nursing
a heartbreak, one of my homies
made me repeat after him:
“my life is already bountiful with love.
all i have to do is accept it.“
those words fell out of my mouth
like stones on a pond. just cuz you strum
some guitar strings, it doesn’t make it a song.
Jimmy was wrong to call the Wolves chumps.
even though he was correct about the facts.
i’m saying the truth is overrated. i gave in
to my homie. i recited his affirmation.
in the deepest lakes of my heart, perhaps
those words resonated. oh lonely ripples.
i mouthed along. but what good
was all my bountiful love. all my acceptance.
i couldn’t cuddle my bountiful nothingness.
couldn’t nuzzle the soft neck of nothing.
i strummed along to my homie’s affirmations.
i strummed until the guitar strings snapped
& that felt truer than all the lovely truths i couldn’t hold.
My mother adored Seve Ballesteros, the swashbuckling Spanish golfer who transformed golf into surrealist art – and by adored I mean she sat uncomfortably close to the television whispering things like gorgeous and dear god. He was famous for his ability to find trouble, only to miraculously recover and break men’s hearts. He had shaggy hair wild in the wind, was predatory on the putting green, and when victorious he was both gracious and cocky. His teeth were white lights where midnight reigns.
Then he got cancer and died.
I was an angry child during Seve’s peak. My father mostly disappeared, and my mother worked 60, 80 hours a week to hold things down. We’d walk through citrus groves, plucking tangerines. I couldn’t understand how she kept it together. The relentless pressure of an only child who became a single mother. How she never complained. I remember asking why she wasn’t stressed all the time. I remember where we stood. I remember a nighthawk peening in the distance. I remember the sun on her shoulders. The only thing, she said, that would be too much to bear is if she outlived one of her children.
I wanted to be Seve. He’s why I played. Modeled my swing after him. Modeled my walk. Would try any shot on the course, regardless of risk. I was all in. But then, when I got good, when I got really good, I realized what was surrounding me. Now the old men I took money off of mostly seemed to be assholes. Around the course, trees kept disappearing while the sound of backhoes and hammers was constant. They paved wetlands. And of course the illuminable whiteness. As much as I wanted to be Seve, I gave it up in that way we can change our beliefs like t-shirts when we’re young, winning my final amateur event when I was 22. First prize was an expense paid trip to Vegas. I took a friend. We got stoned and walked around Circus Circus, which went exactly how you’d think.
Twenty-five years later, on a whim, I went online and bought clubs. I started playing. It was crazy, my mind remembered how my swing should feel, but decades of rust and an older body made it difficult. Still, I persisted. I broke 80 in my fifth round. Was under par a month later. Then I channeled Seve. In a skins game where I was set to lose more cash than I had, I was desperate for a birdie on 18. I had 170 yards on my second shot to a par-4. The ball was below my feet, and I had to draw it around an oak out of the left rough. I hit it to 18 inches. A tap-in. I was back.
Even so, something felt off. Eighteen holes of carrying a golf bag is physical, but I was more tired than expected. Maybe it was this new virus we were hearing about?
I went to the doctor, got on the scale: 214 pounds. Bizarre, as I’d thought I’d weighed 180 my entire life, but there it was. Proof. My doctor told me to lose weight and said he’d see me in six months.
Since I’m averse to diets, to all the predatory hucksters, I just decided to cut back on sweets and beer. And it worked. The weight fell off. A few weeks later I was 205. Then I got under 200. 195. 190. Each time on the scale I was lighter, a relief as I was barely trying. Instead of a beer at 5:00 I might open one at 7:00. Sacrifices!
Then I did it. 180. Back to normal. I looked better in the mirror. I swung better on the golf course. To celebrate I decided to eat and drink whatever for a week. So I did. I was a glutton. I feared getting back on the scale, but my long-term goal was maintaining a weight between 175-180, so I stepped aboard.
And I’d lost four more pounds.
My theory, unsupported by the internets, was that my body had become used to losing weight, and needed to be reset. So I spent another week as a glutton. And lost three more pounds.
That’s when I really went to work. I ate everything. And the weight kept falling. The last time I checked I was 164. I’d lost 50 pounds.
My oncologist moved here from New York to start his own practice. He’s young. He keeps up on the literature. In the kingdom of cancer, you want young doctors. And in his new practice – something we laugh about now – I was his first patient. Day 1. Eight AM. He walked into a room where I sat with one hand in my wife’s lap and he had to tell us I’d likely be dead within a few months.
No one wants to hear Stage IV, but even in that terrible house there’s a scale, and some Stage IV’s are worse than others. My primary tumor was called an apple-core. It grew just past where my small and large intestines meet. It was a problem, but in the bigger scheme, not much of one.
My liver was the problem. Since veins connect the two organs, this is the most common site for colon cancer to spread, to metastasize. Meta means after. Metastasis means rapid transport. It’s bad. As one doctor told me, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s gonna get you. The question is when.
My liver’s left lobe was replaced by a grapefruit-sized tumor. The right lobe had more than 20 tumors, from peas to cue ball. They seemed surprised that I hadn’t suffered catastrophic organ failure.
He’d scheduled me for a power port. This is a portal in your chest for them to inject drugs into the largest veins in your body, to dilute it. The chemo I needed was among the most toxic drugs on the market. Going into my arm would destroy those veins. The surgeon installed my port. The next day, bloody and stitched, the nurses accessed this port and my journey began.
It’s been almost three years since I was diagnosed. For some reason, my body responded in ways the doctors didn’t predict. Though I’m still on chemo, and have lots of issues, I’m still relatively healthy. I’m not able to play golf, but on a recent trip to visit my mother we staged a putting contest. Eighteen holes. One beer on the line. We tied.
I was living in California when Seve died. My mother was visiting. There’s not much to do in my little town up north, but there is a famous brewery, and we were there for a tour and a beer. We didn’t know how to talk about Seve, because neither of us had yet entered the kingdom. When he died he was a year older than I am right now. The oldest and most prestigious tournament in the world is the Open Championship, and he’d won three times – the same as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. He’d won more tournaments in Europe than any player in history, a record that still stands. He won them all by the time he was 38. But we’re just a couple of fans, in a faraway place, remembering how he’d distracted us through some tough times. So we did the only thing we can do. We raised a glass. To Seve.
On the 72nd and final hole of the 1993 European Masters, Seve stood on the tee thinking he needed a birdie to win. But like so many other times, he blasted his drive off the planet. When the television cameras finally caught up, his ball had come to rest near a swimming pool (where did that come from?) and he was stymied behind a stone wall, overhung with a menacing oak. His caddy begged him to pitch out sideways to safety, and then try to make a difficult par. But Seve insisted on gunning for a miracle. His caddy begged again. And then a third time, telling Seve he wouldn’t let him hit the shot. Seve waved him away, and with a mighty hack launched the ball through an opening the size of a dinner plate, in what the announcer said was the greatest golf shot he’d ever seen. He managed to carry 130 yards to the front of the green and of course he went on to make birdie. Asked after the round he said that his theory on golf is that he always want to keep moving forward.
My hands sliced the water and pulled with power, making split after split on each 100-yard freestyle five seconds faster than I expected, hitting the turns at the right speed and right angles, feeling like a well-oiled machine. I paused at the wall after my first set and watched as three other women my age walked onto the deck wearing jeans and button-down blouses and sweaters, not swimsuits like the thin-strapped one-piece Speedo I wore. They walked up the bleacher stairs to the right of the pool and sat down just as a half-dozen kids came out of the locker rooms.
The pace clock came back around to :00, so it was time to push off and start the next set of 10x100 yards freestyle on 1:25. In the middle of my third 100, a lifeguard stood on deck behind the half-dozen kids and watched them slide safely into the pool and hold onto the gutter. This was 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, non-holiday afternoon. I wondered why the kids weren’t in school, assumed they were home schooled by the women in the bleachers – their mothers.
I wondered what those women – those mothers – thought about me, a woman their age, swimming fast laps in the middle of a week day, or if they even noticed or considered me at all. Who was I to have the luxury and free time to dedicate to rigorous athletic endeavors during the day? Why wasn’t I with my children or at least at my day job? For a moment, I felt small and meaningless. Here are these women taking care of their children, providing them with everything they want and need, including a home-school education complete with a physical education curriculum. Raising the next generation, making meaningful contributions to the current and future society. And here I was, swimming. Swimming because I wanted to and enjoyed it. How frivolous. How self-indulgent. I pushed off the wall to start the sixth 100 of the set. At the first turn, my foot slipped on the wall, cutting short my push-off and glide.
I got a feeling akin to jealousy, that admiration kind of jealousy, for those mothers in the bleachers. I had always wanted to be a mom. But there I was at 33 years old, still swimming, like I had as a child, a teenager, a college student, like the 6-year-old children of those women my age in the bleachers. Maybe, though, if those mothers noticed me at all, maybe they were jealous of me, too, wishing they had a free afternoon to pursue their passion, the one thing in life that made them feel strong and powerful, rather than using all of their free time honing the whims and passions of their children. Maybe mothers are too selfless to think like that. But I wouldn’t know; I’m not one of them.
It must have been something to stand, looking out
at the smoke-lit masses, most dressed for weddings
(or, more appropriately, a funeral), having thrown
down dough and placed their best bets on which
black man would beat the other’s brains in, alive
at the end of fifteen rounds (if necessary), to be crowned
king of the ring, and realize: these men could make or lose
money on what you did with your fists & those same hands
aren’t fit to shake or touch their wives, or do anything
other than serve for or clean up after them, the same
as it always was until certain two-faced & gullible types,
guilt-ridden about God’s will, turned this country inside
out—and where does it end, lying down with animals?
It must have been something to know these same folks—most
safely past draft age—would see the flag to which they pledged
allegiance happy fighting to the last drop of others’ blood & stay
heavyweight champion of the world, also KOing the proliferation
of Communist rebellion, a kind of one-two punch to sustain
a great white hype, reminding certain folks about their place
and why they best be content w/ table scraps, all other things
considered, and had a few battles in the South gone differently
we wouldn’t be in this mess, and anyway, what’s done is done
but how dare any of you people get uppity enough to even think
twice about who’s in charge and writes the checks; don’t forget:
you get made and you can get unmade—that’s the American Way.
(*On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title, sentenced to five years in prison, and banned from boxing for three years.)
I’ve been throwing
large men onto ocean
fist mats, surface of
sweat & bruise.
I have been thrown
every day this week
hoping to clear this
beehive brain. All buzzing
sounds a lot like ends.
In Judo, an ippon counts
as “perfect.” The body becomes
a circle and for a brief moment
legs are intertwined, arms—Durga
esque when we navigate Samsara.
In circumventing suicide, I found
best to keep the body from stillness
Let the limbs dangle only in mania
slumber. Climb new heights
in the daylight, pull-up
in the evening, callous
every softening. Become
unrecognizable. Try to beat
time like a violent wave.
I wrestle with my body
like combatting a forceful
entry. Eyes shut, I see a gun
peeking through the door
creaking open, my body
against it, pushing—always
pushing. Today, I will be
thrown by large men
onto blue mats of sweat
and bruise—circle & all.
image: Alan Rozanski
The soles of my feet, dirty from the barefoot laps we just ran on the circus gym’s sprung floor, meet each other on top of a blue foam block. It’s a modified butterfly position; my legs form a diamond: butt on ground, feet on block. Each knee to the side.
Alan, new to contortion class, puts his weight on my low back. When he stops, it is not because my body does but because my head is now on the block with my feet. There is no farther forward to go, so he places hands on my thighs and presses them down too. “Tell me when,” he says. I don’t.
Coach, with her trendy cropped sweatshirt, walks by with another block. She lifts my feet and places it atop the first, my feet now elevated eight inches do that Alan is able to press down once more.
I am naturally a front-bender—but it is graceful backbends which make up most tricks and poses, so I sometimes think I fooled Coach into accepting me into class with this move. From where I stand now, months of these mornings behind me, I don’t think of my splits as impressive anymore. I forget that most people would—do—call me flexible.
I’m not sure how good I have to get at this to be qualified to use the name “contortionist.” All I know is it sounds better than “debilitating connective tissue disorder.”
* * *
One day, Alan asks, “So why do you all do this?”
The other three “regulars” and I look at him with no answer. I think we mostly know we are too old to become professionals. We just do it, I imagine us saying, we like it. That’s all.
Eventually, someone gives some answer. I don’t know what it is; I’m focusing on actively engaging my upper back while Alan stands above and behind. He pushes his knees into my shoulders to shift my chest forward, pulls arms up and back.
If I am at pain here, it is a pain that makes sense. This makes it different from the rest of the time.
“What about you, Alan? Why are you here?”
“Oh, you know,” he shrugs, and this he says without hesitation: “I wanted to learn some life skills in the air, in case school doesn’t work out.”
* * *
My life has been filled with circus tricks: jump-roping with my arms, teaching nieces and nephews to do the splits, drunken party picnic-table backbends, thumbs bent to wrists and elbows upside-down.
My life has been filled with small pains, things I had thought normal. When I saw the DO who ordered my MRI, he called medical students in to watch me dislocate my shoulder.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” one said when I was done, a question nobody asked when he’d told me to do it.
Later, that DO would report my brain was too big for my head: Chiari Malformation. “Could that be causing this pain?”
No, he said, they found this accidentally.
“So… what’s doing it?” I asked, in that wide, extended pause.
“From everything I’m seeing, there’s no reason you should be in pain.”
At home, I did my own research and found that my compressed brainstem was comorbid with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome: malfunctioning collagen that can cause—among other things—loose and unstable joints, pain and fatigue, unusually fragile skin, and spontaneous rupturing of arteries. It is rare, the searches say. It takes, on average, 14 years to diagnosis. There is no cure. No medical specialty oversees it. Most patients, diagnosed or otherwise, manage symptoms on their own.
* * *
When I went to contortion class the first time—a hail-Mary found after Googles like “what is it when my body does things that don’t hurt but should and everything else does hurt holy fuck” and the more reasonable “how do I learn where it’s safe to move my joints?”—Coach asked if there were anything she should know about me. “I’m hypermobile,” I told her. “I don’t naturally know how far is too far, and so I’m trying to learn—”
“Okay,” she said. “Me too.”
* * *
When it’s just the four regulars in class, we talk more freely. While running and lifting, between instructions and clarifications, about our dogs and Game of Thrones and which doctors we’re seeing next.
I have found that circus people are like any other group—only, the ways our bodies betray us is on the topics list too. Here, “my shoulder popped out while I was driving” is a normal thing to say. Someone might have a solution. Nobody asks you to demonstrate.
I consider this as we move into back strengthening. Conversation stops. Today we’re lying on our stomachs with our feet tucked under stall bars, using giant rubber-bands that pull upper bodies towards the wall: horizontal backbends between floors and warehouse ceilings. After thirty seconds, we slowly let go of our bands but keep our bodies in space as long as possible, the switch between passive flex and active strength I was never taught before.
Later, I comment casually that in a certain position, two fingers go numb.
“That’s your radial nerve!” the lady answering phones at the front desk shouts. “Just hold your shoulders up like this.”
* * *
I process pain well. At least, I think I do. I am silent during most stretches, focus on turning tension to strength. But sometimes, the low hisses of effort slip out against my will.
This is okay. Contortion, neither a competitive sport nor one centered on inner peace, allows for these complaints. We practice together but advance alone. Our progress relates to how hard we work. We either do it, or we don’t.
I can do this, so I am.
And yes, I’m proud of it. I think I look good. I post pictures on social media, measure angles on a chart. I feel I am owed these: my small vanities. This body was made wrong. I’ve resolved to make it impressive.
Okay, I process pain well—but on the days in bed, when I’m realizing a “real” job would kill my energy then relationships then me, the emotional weight of processing feels almost too much to bear. My bed is a frozen hellscape, pain too great to focus or sleep. So I scroll, I’m always scrolling, past old friends who don’t know and my strange amalgamation of support groups, their prayer-trains and gut microbiomes and crusades against their nurses, and one hard day, I scroll past a picture of Coach’s side oversplits, not from a performance or gym but the ordinariness of her bedroom.
“Bend so you don’t break,” the caption says.
She has small vanities of her own.
* * *
It is six years past first symptom when I walk into an unrelated office and stay for two hours. The OBGYN, unexpected expert, sees the “stretch” marks I’ve had on my thighs since childhood. She sees the bruises that don’t fade, my healing as slow as a first controlled backbend-from-standing. She watches me cry, defend my experience in my body. She asks if anything helps. I tell her the strength gained from contortion class.
“You’re in a contortion class,” she says.
“Let’s get you a genetic test.”
Later, in my notes, I will see that she wrote “Patient clearly has Ehlers-Danlos.” I will tell every doctor I see going forward that somebody wrote those exact words, hoping that now they’ll do something to help me figure out how to exist.
* * *
You come to have a new normal, realize this is not exceptional. Every ballet or yoga class I’d been in had me bending far and easily. In contortion class, my silly party tricks might as well be considered remedial. Audrey does middle splits in a handstand. Abby does backbends resting on feet and elbows.
You come to have a new normal. When they ask you to rate your pain, you think “6” and have to figure out if that’s everyone else’s “9.” I’m still not sure how to dress when meeting a new doctor, or how many symptoms I can bring up at once. I still haven’t accepted that “feeling functional” is the goal, not “feeling better.” I’m not yet a good pain patient. I suppose I’ll have to train more.
* * *
This is what I can’t tell them: I bend because I am broken. $180 every ten classes isn’t something I can send to my health insurance, but it’s the closest I’ve come to getting help.
“Why do you all do this?” Alan asks.
Because doctors keep saying there’s nothing wrong with me, and the other day, I laughed and my rib popped out. Because I hit my deductible twice, and that was on the good insurance. Because my friends that still invite me out don’t talk about dislocations and stop inviting me if I do.
Because right now, I can’t drive for more than twenty minutes, but I can almost touch my butt to my head. Because healthcare is a circus. Because this is what I’ve got.
An hour drive up State Route 127 from the (not so) big city to the roadside familiar sprouting of Camden OH, an everywhere-town of six-by-six streets & a Powerhouse Pizza & Subs we pass all bleary eyed & stiff backed, craning our little necks against back seat windows to beg beer-sipping Dad to stop but registration ends soon, we’re late, no time, straight past good ol’ Camden which camps in the center of an unusually large copse by Preble County standards, like the corn farmers had swept up the schmutz into a green pile on the bleachy, yellowed gas station floor across the street from Powerhouse. We are eight & five years old. We blow past houses. We are blown out into cornstalk roads & across the bridge where a decade later we will dip our black lab puppy baptismal into its tobacco-brown depths & wonder accurately if this is the last time we will ever smell the SP-107 gasoline that soaks the Earth like a peat bog or hear the whine of St. Peter in the engines, redneck trumpets of grace. At G&J Kartway, there are fourteen races every summer. There is always someone on the off days, doing laps on empty track, us lounging near naked in a chrome RV & fingering our Gameboy while we wait for the someone to finish burning gas. Without the hundreds of other RVs the grounds are a tangle of gravel plots & streets, weeds & blue skies & ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky: the only song on our first gen iPod which invariably runs out of charge by day two of each race weekend. We eat candy bars & explore the eroded Earth below the cow fence & then brother tells sister this is what it looks like when mountains are made, that don’t you feel like one of those ancient gods? & she says yes. & brother digs in the dirt to make the marks that God makes. It is our time to drive & this place, empty, is outside time, the closest we ever get to Narnia. We dimly wonder if heaven is a hot asphalt day. Entombed in the too-tight helmet & chest protector & jumpsuit & gloves & dirty sneakers we Sisyphus our route around for hours to shave seconds like ingrown hairs, pointlessly & painfully & sometimes freeing, & we never win races though sometimes we come close. We are ten & seven the one time we remember winning—during the barbaric era of using lights instead of a flagman to signal the GreenLightGo! start of each race. We are in the back of the pack. The back half sees the light & accelerates into the front half, which thinks no light was lit & so they must trundle another pace lap around. We see all of this coming. We watch the sixty horsepower chariots piloted by near-infants rocket forward into stationary bumpers & we dodge all carnage, come flying out from the quagmire of bodies & little too-big helmets & streak down the back straightaway, not just victor but survivor, Smart Kid we are. They call this a false start & deny us our victory. We complain about this still at twenty-four & twenty-one. At twelve & nine, we’ve made a silent nemesis of a kid in a gray shark-fin helmet. At eighteen he will father a child, but for now he is just ahead of us at the end of the back straight & we have to make a 180° turn. We commit. We keep our pinched foot pressed down. Half of winning is knowing when to slow down. The other half is pure pig-headed piss & vinegar determination. We mismix the two & wheels leave asphalt, spinning a thousand times in the open August air. We hit the safety hay bales & hay stuffs up our helmet & the paramedics, looking us over in the mispainted mini ambulance, dad loading our kart onto its stand, say we’re fine, just fine, & we play that night at having our Kid Kart purple heart. Bravado is worth near as much as victory. We are invited to sit in on the adults poker game, though are refused sips of their bourbon&cokes. We are eighteen & fifteen for our last kart summer. It is track cleanup day, midway between deserted & bursting, & a nine-fingered G&J elder lights his RV (and body) on fire while cooking hotdogs. We rush out onto the asphalt steppes, eyes bugging at the medevac which swoops down from heaven orange as the too-thin crust of Firehouse pizza. Its blades blow the multicolored trash cans like empty sodas & it is the most magical thing we have ever seen. It is a kind of worship we do later, righting the cans, picking up garbage. The elder survives & at the awards banquet in January he is wearing a cheap suit & a fat smile. He is Orpheus & the track our collective, polyamorous Eurydice: singular, grotesque, beautiful, returned to, lost.
He clings to his mom like spin on a curveball.
We try to coax him into the team’s huddle. Then,
shove. The coach says “welcome to the team,”
followed by an ellipsis and a question mark.
I don’t know if I’m supposed to say his name
for him. I must support his emotional needs
and discourage him from being too clingy
at the same time. Like swinging enough
to make good contact but not enough
to strike out. I never figured that out either.
There’s no coach munching sunflower seeds
in the dugout of the game of parenting.
They never teach you this stuff. “Who is they?”
you might say? Good fucking question! “Jack,”
I answer. “Okay,” the coach says. “Let’s run
the bases.” The team erupts into a limbs
and dirt. When the cloud settles to the infield,
there stands my son, feet planted, tears
carving paths into the dust on his cheeks.
When it’s his turn during intros,
he says his favorite food is silence.
We sneak away from the huddle,
first me, then her, towards the benches
where all of the other parents sit.
The team splits into throwing
and hitting. He slumps and drags
his feet through the dirt but he
does not run back to us. We all watch
our sons and a few daughters.
Sports Dad leaps up to help the coach.
The dirt refuses to stick to him.
there is dirt on my boots
there is dirt on his brand new hat
there is dirt on his mitt
there is dirt in my hair
there is dirt on my coat
there is dirt on the lawn chairs I dug out from the garage
that may be old dirt
there is dirt on the ground, of course
there is dirt on the infield
there is dirt on the outfield
it looks like grass but if you stomp: dirt
there is dirt on my son’s hands
which he throws wide
because he made a catch
Runs To Third First
Son Of Jock
Swings So Hard She Spins Around Twice
Sits and Ruins Pants
Little Miss Grass and Dandelions
It shouldn’t surprise me, I was the same way.
So many Boy Scout campouts punctuated
with my tears. I remember screaming
after trying to go to bed early, when my troop
shook my tent and sang Kumbaya. I was forever
stuck in right field, plucking grass and fearing
flies and fly balls. When coaches told me good eye
they were lying. Here’s what else they don’t tell you
before you have kids: you will have to bat
against all of the difficult parts of your childhood,
and that guy can throw a mean curve. And not just once,
either: from May to mid-July, every Thursday night plus
twice a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Saturdays.
at the first game I’m fighting the urge
to hover. I want to wave, I want to
check on him, I want to ask him
what he’s talking about with the other
shortstop as they just stand there
because Coach Casey is playing them
so deep for some reason, which I want
to ask him about. I want to tell
the two third basemen to stand up.
I want to stand and scream when he bats
and hits a leadoff single, never mind that
everyone hits a single. Instead I act like
I’m connected to the folding chair via
an invisible harness, forcing myself
to relax as the fine mist of dust
swallows me whole, coats my teeth.
The psychiatrist asks me,
Have you experienced any euphoria lately?
And I say yes, thinking of Game 6 and
watching Yordan’s home run
soar over the fucking batter’s eye,
hell, over the moon. But I had to hold
my screams on the tip of my vocal cords,
because we had guests over,
and my goal that week was to be
courteous and kind to others,
so in real life, I was saying my good
byes and thank yous, and shaking
hands, but on the inside, a rocket
took off from my heart, and my muscles
were a loaded spring ready to launch
myself through the ceiling, and I saw
the fans on TV deliriously drunk
on beer and happiness. But I keep
quiet; I just say yes, and that is all I say
because it is eleven o’clock at night,
and I’ve been in the hospital for seven
hours, so to save time, and myself,
I just keep saying yes until
the psychiatrist asks her next question.
How many days I would sit in a cushioned
chair, teasing lines into the loose cloth
of a poem. Outside, the thrumming rhythms
of a boy’s basketball stitched their way
into the warp and weave of words.
A blessing, sometimes. Sometimes, a curse,
and then I would snap the notebook shut,
move on to mindless chores.
Never once did I rush to the doorway,
scream at the street in some rough trochee
of that leather bounce, convince the bored kid
I was mad, or merely old.
What a surprise when I saw him one day—
alone, his loose head bobbing, his steps slow,
his ball the colors of an American flag
dropping and rising in that still steady rhythm.
I drove past him slowly, on my way out of town.
Tonight, in the dark of a late autumn evening,
I turn down a different street to get home.
On a corner boys aim their lanky arms
at a hoop tacked into a tree,
a hoop in the dusk I can’t see.
They step to the sidewalk the closer
my car comes to their tight island,
its in-between world. Of a sudden
there flies in my path the striped ball,
the boy behind it. For an instant the planet
rolls loose as an acorn on the asphalt.
I tumble from the car. Behind me, the boy wails
but stands still, his hands gripping the flattened ball.
Seconds pass. No one around us speaks a word.
High above us, stars glisten across America.
We can’t see them for the wide hands of the trees.
there is no blood in surrender. i remind
myself of this, clutching my own hands
around my own throat. in praise of the
miracles, the signs and wonders we stretch
our bodies to work. i would like that
to be all it is, but they’re always saying some shit. like one time
this older boy formed the cross with his tongue &
spat the word faggot at my buddy josh &
i & i, like always, was a coward but josh was only like 5’6
but righteous as all hell & so he went up &
wrapped his righteous hand around that boys quivering throat &
slammed him back against a wall &
he said “I don’t wanna hear another goddamn word out of your mouth for as long as I live”
& by god I never heard his voice again.
and certainly nobody ever told Reggie Miller he choked again.
And so what I am saying is there is still grace in fighting back,
spitting & snarling til the clock runs out.
I’m saying there has to be lines around our mercy. I will bend this far & no further.
What’s funny is how all those people in New York turned their backs &
made for the exits, so assured of their victory they missed entirely
that brief explosion of impossible violence. So I guess I’m not really sure if
anybody went home that night having learned something about
forgiveness, but at the very least they learned what words not to say anymore.
I don’t tremble down the hill
but thrill to the clutch of the rough log,
the rail of the stairway Dad has built
seven steps to the concrete
landing with the year 1954 carved in.
The scent of honeysuckle cues me:
watch for the horizon, the first
patch of lake, the pine, distant
on the other side.
Now the narrow beach
rough rocks on the breakwater
that brings the sand in, and beyond
a sailfish splashed by the speedboat
making waves that never reach
the shore. I revel in
the first time of treading water
my breast-stroke toward Dad,
relief as our fingertips touch.
All sports exact their toll.
Basketball destroys the joints.
Football changes the mind.
In Custer, South Dakota,
on the fourth day of July,
Blaine Sturgeon paid the price.
Hot dog eating not a sport,
you say? A discipline
demanding physical and mental
capacities beyond those of
mere mortals? And one
fraught with mortal danger?
"We just figured Blaine reached his limit,”
said third-place finisher Jacky Dunnald
who sat next to Blaine and who,
like the other contestants,
continued to eat while
a fireman started CPR.
The county coroner confirmed:
A rogue weenie eluded
Blaine's esophagus, electing
Instead to occupy his trachea.
A little lubrication of mustard
might have saved the day.
Winner Frankie McIntyre--37 dogs--
extended his condolences.
"Blaine was a valiant
eater, a worthy opponent, and
a good friend." Frankie
asked contest officials to donate
his first-place prize to Mrs.
Sturgeon. Nancy Sturgeon
gratefully accepted Frankie's offer.
A year's supply of hot dogs
would provide the family
a small measure of solace.
The Custer, South Dakota,
Chamber of Commerce
thought it wiser not to conduct
the blueberry pie-eating contest
planned for that evening,
rescheduling it for next Sunday instead.
Up and down in the Dumbbell Nebula, twelve thousand eight hundred and seventy trillion kilometers awayMeghan Kemp-Gee
Backlit by the central region’s dying
bright white star, we grow great bovine haunches,
cusps, dark tails, and knots. We do deadlifts, up
and down and up and up and up.
In the constellation Vulpecula,
we don’t know what to make of words like grow,
deadlift, lightyear, taste of strawberries, or
cusp. We count in time with predators, keep
our sidereal days crepuscular,
point our pointed fox-masks at the summer
or the Summer Triangle, burrow in
for winter, damn the cost. We don’t speak in
riddles, round our numbers, count our losses.
We could do anything, lift anything
up. They won’t know what to make of us, dead-
lifting, red-coated and well-muscled, how
we don’t know what to make of words like loss.
We pant and thrust. We lift the vulpine dead,
align our spines and missing eyes. We close
like shutters, feast or famine, gasping and
swimming like the dead. We could make a feast
of distance, fall in love with anything.
We are as omnivorous as failing
swimmers, looking up to take a breath.