When he gets drunk, Larry tries to kill himself because he says he would rather die in battle than grow old, but we all know he stole the line from War Party
(in which the Indian heroes charge the national guard with tomahawks and clubs they stole from a museum).
One time, he got his ass kicked in a fight he started when he came upon a group of drunks in the woods and attacked them with a log. He said they fought like dogs and their teeth
were as white and foul as the stars and tore off most his skin that will never grow back. They left him to die in the brush and the mud.
One time, when we were all drinking he told us our ancestors ate their dogs. And that they deserved to be conquered, so we tore off the rest of his skin.
Wild horses gather at midnight around the fire of the local bar where they drink from trough beer and talk crazy dreams in a language even they can’t understand. When they tell us their stories they punctuate them with hoof beats. They look for broken twigs. They speak broken English. When the sun comes, their carcasses are eaten by buzzards. After the bones are cleaned, the skeletons sink into prairie grass to be dug up by anthropologists who glue and stitch and wire them back together. In order to preserve horse culture, they save the bones and sell them back to the horses at midnight.
When men died of gay cancer I was only five — preoccupied combing the manes of purple ponies, bending Barbie’s legs to fit snug in her pink convertible.
The nightly news was a montage of pale skin and pitted cheeks — thin, thin bodies and fevered eyes. Then back to regular programming — Sequined Solid Gold dancers twirling to the week’s top ten.
I twirled in my driveway like Linda Carter in her star-spangled shorts while the white hot sun bleached the neighborhood streets and the GRID sparked to life.
That was the summer a sick boy took a dip in the city pool. So they drained the water, scrubbed the tiles clean and waited for the all clear. No one could be too safe.
So we made due with the Slip ‘n Slide, grape Kool-Aid and Rocket Pops, our mothers with their menthols, lawn chairs and lemonade, deconstructing the perfect Hollywood male — Tom Selleck versus Burt Reynolds.
And sometimes they whispered Theories on transmission — saliva, blood, soft men — loose-hipped and high-heeled wasting away in San Francisco, New York, one or two in Toledo, Ohio, if the gossip was true.
I left adult talk to adults and helped by best friend wrap her hair in Princess Leia buns, ignored the debates on disease, disappointment, a boy’s unnatural desire to slip his bare foot in a sheer stocking.
The years that followed brought us the great nail polish panic, licorice red fingers and toes, Ryan White in Kokomo, bullets shot through his living room window. We could never be too safe.
So my mother locked up her makeup case and my father pulled me under the remains of a rusted Chevy Blazer, pointing out car parts like constellations, slowly, patiently teaching me the importance of fixing damaged pieces.
If you are boy born in Massillon, Ohio, you will be visited by the booster club. They will come baring gifts — a little rubber football placed in your basinet — Go Tigers! emblazoned on the side.
It’s a simple gesture, a gentle push that says God damn it, you will learn to throw.
You will be baptized in driveways and backyards during that winter-waiting period before the pre-season, when boys learn the fine art of the wrist snap, when their frozen breath is thicker than the smoke spilling from the mills.
There will be penance for the things your father did, for the things he couldn’t do — the incomplete pass, the sideline sack. You will need to do it better than generations before. Charge the defensive line with 100 years of history stacked on your padded shoulders.
You will eat of this, drink of this and pray for this in the locker room, in the huddle, in the months before the big rivalry.
Our Father, who aren’t in heaven let us beat the bulldogs, let us kill McKinley. And you will taste this when those scoreboard seconds tick off another victory, another head bowed, another knee touching the field.
And if all goes as planned you will fall in love with this, commit yourself to the autumn clatter — young bodies colliding, the formations on the field, the coaches whistle.
You will fall in love with Friday nights when the stadium lights burn brighter than Venus and Jupiter. You may settle down with a scholarship at State or settle in for your life bending steel at the plant
But if the opposite is true, if you go long for that Hail Mary pass and it fumbles from your fingers, letting down an entire town — Remember, you can cut back past bleachers, past parking lots with their crepe paper floats, past Republic Steel, the Family Farm and Feed. Rush to the Lincoln Highway, that famous road that charges through Massillon to other territories, to other states on its way to another coast. Keep going and thank the Lord you learned how to run as soon as you learned to walk.
Laid out on the long wooden table, the donuts. You may laugh at this, but it’s true.
They were better than all the crumbly cereal, the stiff little packets of tea, instant coffee. I couldn’t think charity with those donuts before me, sweetness swollen to the size of baseball gloves. & bursting—pink, white, even purple.
Can you remember something as wonderful? My mother let me carry one home, the one I liked best. At home, I couldn’t wait. I got down on the naked floor. Yes, I knelt, I held the treasure, its perfect purple-filled weight in two hands, my hands.
& my mother glared at me. Don’t eat, she said, like a poor person.
& the jelly oozed out, a drop fell to the floor. But purple isn’t, can’t be poor. I know from books what purple is: the color of kings, the royal dye Hercules discovered, the secret gold of sea snails on an ancient coast, the mountains & their majesty, the heart, its bravery. Believe me.
No need to remind me of our mutual friend, the professorial candidate, who’s steeped in the most thoughtful
of French thought, like a plum in sweet wine, & who thus tells us how we must bow before the Other or else risk
our own dehumanization. I know. But must we really go, on this hellishly cold winter’s night, to your co-worker’s
going-away, in a tiny downtown bar where all must jostle for a spot, & nothing good is ever played on the jukebox?
OK, OK. With great humanitarian effort, I too put on my heavy coat, ready to step out. But then you kiss me, & we fall, flop,
our altruistic gesture dropped, giving way to cuddling, again. It seems tonight that neither of us can embrace more than
one Other, no matter how fine it sounds in French. So can’t we just stay in bed, in our coats, pressed against each
(singular) Other, & otherwise adhering to Sartre’s l’enfer c’est les autres, till we fall asleep & dream that we went, that our
dream-throats drank down an appropriately wild amount of beer, & our dream-hands threw, one stunning fluke round, a winning
dart? & afterwards, we texted everyone: Don’t be a stranger, but be strange. Come by often for a cup of tea,
In the basement of Haskell Indian School, she was one of the girls standing assembly style pressing flour into pie tins.
Long hours at the school’s foundry made him crepuscular. Accustomed to seeing his shadow in waxy pre-dawn light, he would pause near the basement bakery’s vent, warmth blossoming around his ankles as he placed his boots in the slush and stomped out a tune that she’d recognize from the last night’s band rehearsal.
After graduation, they married: the band had to find another trumpeter— the quartet a new flutist.
Thirteen summers of work release— eighteen-hour days and humid hayloft nights allowed him to buy his trumpet from the music instructor. The flute stayed behind.
I use a trick to teach students how to avoid passive voice. Circle the verbs. Imagine inserting “by zombies” after each one. Have the words been claimed by the flesh-hungry undead? If so, passive voice. I wonder if these sixth graders will recollect, on summer vacation, as they stretch their legs on the way home from Yellowstone or Yosemite and the byway’s historical marker beckons them to the site of an Indian village—
Where trouble was brewing. Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter. Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred. Where most were women and children.
Riveted bramble of passive verbs etched in wood— stripped hands breaking up from the dry ground to pinch the meat of their young red tongues.
Your then-wife rushed to the bath to scrub it out.
The waiter refills my glass then a crash almost collapses the awning. Rain staccatos the roof, and bullets come to mind because earlier on the phone inviting me to dinner, telling of the details, I imagined a murder to rival Capote’s opus, but it wasn’t, rather your brother-in-law who owned too many books took his old mother with him, natural causes, the police told you, heart panics, heat strokes, or loneliness and your husband’s away, so here we are. In Kosovo, little boys ran after your interpreter’s VW Rabbit begging for cigarettes. What is a Newark house with too many books? What is a torn country? They love Americans! Because we bombed the Kurds. In Newark, a double death. It pours outside. The sky’s a fist of tobacco, and the night smells like pennies and blood, our first rain in months. From my current read, The Bookseller of Kabul, I tell you that the Taliban outlawed kite flying but not polygamy. My windshield wiper breaks. I drive home with your bath towel in my lap, Scotch tape holding the blade together. You fly to Newark to see to burials and a labyrinth of books, unforeseen rain that surrenders to gravity, a luminous source of light trailing from war-torn cities.
Kelly McQuain is the author of Velvet Rodeo, the winner of BloomMagazine‘s annual poetry chapbook. His writing has appeared recently in The Pinch, Redivider, Weave, Chelsea Station, Assaracus, Kestrel, Mead and Chelsea Station, among other journals. His work has been collected in such anthologies as Men on Men, Best American Erotica, Skin & Ink, The Queer South, and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books. McQuain’s occasional columns on city life appear in The Philadelphia Inquirer. He teaches at Community College of Philadelphia.