It was 1962. I was 17.
Jack Frazier and I decided we’d go
to the Jefferson County Speedway
where, we’d heard, we could get beer
and loose girls. This was the year I carried
a Trojan rubber in my wallet so long
it formed itself into the leather
and Terry Rafferty said
I had the only wallet with its own
life preserver. Oh how I wanted
to rescue myself with that Trojan.
I was drowning in a sea of expectancy.
I followed my erection everywhere.
The world blew kisses to my skin.
The air was electric along my arms.
I walked behind that one-legged
troublemaker, who yelled Come on
or Hurry up as he pointed this way
and that. We disconnected the speedometer
on my parents’ `61 Chevy Bel-Air 4 door.
It was a sixâ€“not much Jack said,
getting in, but it was all we had
going for us except the tufts of hair
on Jack’s chest that got us the beer
and maybe the girls, who suddenly
stood beside us just inside the mesh fence
between the bleachers and the dirt track.
I can remember the constant shower of earth
as the cars circled that quarter-mile.
I can hear the motors and the gears working
their way through the dust. I can see
a `56 Ford Crown Victoria, a `49 Merc,
a `57 Chrysler so battered they were like
bad memories of themselves
circling until it was impossible to know
who was ahead and who was behind
beneath the floodlights hung on wires
that flickered as the wind tossed them about.
What I can’t see is the face of the girl
who held onto my arm and yelled in my ear
over the noises of the race. My head
filled with her sweet perfume as she talked.
Beer by beer, Jack and I and the girls
worked our way into the Bel Air and out
into the night on some farmer’s lane
for kissing and rubbing and touching
and my cock’s shout of Me Me Me.
The girl and I were out of the car
and into the bushes and out of our clothes
and I was saying Oh Oh Oh and she was saying
He doesn’t know where to put it
and I couldn’t get to the Trojan fast enough
and my essence was in the air as if
I’d given myself to the world that night
and then I was home, feeling stale and sticky
I splashed myself with Old Spice After Shave
to cover up the smell and the feel
of my secret life and the next day
I smelled like a sailor home on leave
and drove around town in the Bel Air,
its speedometer needle now jerking
around the dial as if it no longer
could identify the exact speed of travel.
These are my teenage years.
My parents don’t seem to notice
that the transmission slips
and that there’s a slight smell
of vomit where Stevie Cocheran lost
his cookies, along with two hamburgers
and a six pack, inside the passenger door.
But then . . . now . . . listening to Glenn Gould’s
version of Beethoven’s Tempest piano sonata,
I realize I’m having all my years.
Half asleep over my life, I hear
Gould speed through the notes
as if he’s throwing them awayâ€“
whole attics full of melodies
out the window as if he’s looking for
the deeper stuff in all the souvenirsâ€“
some image, some blend of notes
that carry grace and if not grace,
peace thenâ€“peace beneath the unsteady light
where we give ourselves to the world
as we circle in and out of the dark.
I DON’T KNOW. I NEVER DID.
Goose Island. It’s 1956.
I’m standing on the shore of the lagoon around it.
In the west is the Rock River on its way
to the Mississippi, the ocean, the air.
Farther west is Mercy Hospital
where my father would die in 1965.
To the east are the railroad tracks and the hill
where I sledded in the winter,
one year so happy I peed in my pants
rather than stop in the dark, in the moonlight.
By the time I walked the mile farther east to home
I shivered so badly I thought I was frozen
and my father, laughing, put me in a warm bath
beside the toilet he would sit on years later
shitting globs of black. “Internal hemorrhaging,”
the doctor said and taught me how
to inject him with morphine, though my father was so skinny
I sometimes missed the vein and hit bone with the needle.
He tried to scream but it came out a whimper,
my father’s voice did, but now he was laughing
as he rubbed me down with a scratchy wash cloth.
“No one ever died of frozen pee,” he said.
Goose Island. It’s 1956.
I’ve gone there to fish. I got up early but found
the line in my Shakespeare reel tangled
so I rode my bicycle downtown for new line,
came home, found I couldn’t install it,
rode back downtown and arrived, breathless,
later than I’d meant, at Goose Island.
I’ve laid out the sandwiches my mother made,
arranged my gear and tackle on the shore,
though I now see I’ve forgotten my hook and my bait.
Out in the water the carp flop occasionally,
breaking the water as if to breathe better.
I don’t know why, but I cast my hookless line
into the water and watch the end sink beneath
the algae, barely heavy enough for the deep.
Goose Island. 1956. The carp are still
coming up for air, and I’m at my desk now, in 2007,
my heart beating the way my father’s did
sitting on that toilet, his blood turning to shit.
I don’t know. I never did.
The Chinese tell the fable of the Mandarin
who, for years, fished with a straight pin
instead of a hook. The Emperor came to see him.
“For what are you fishing?” the Emperor asked.
“For you, my Emperor,” the fisherman said.
I raise my pen to the sound of the heartbeats,
barely audible in the empty air.
The headless chicken
is running toward the alley
beside my grandfather’s house.
Amazing the way it goes
as if it had
running along in 1958
without a head.
John Avery, who’s nine
and four years younger than I,
is coming up the cinder-covered alley
to see what all the shouting’s for
and I grab the chicken head
and yell Look, John, look
as I run toward him
shaking the bloody head
with its yellow beak, its frozen eyes.
No oh no oh no
John cries, putting his hands
to his cheeks, standing frozen there
while the headless chicken runs faster and faster
in circles then slows and leans
into its turn and falls and rises
and falls once more
this time to stay.
John stares and stamps his feet
and seems to be standing on
clouds of cinder dust
as he keeps on yelling Oh no oh no
and my grandfather laughs and this
is all a little part of 1958
that I’d forgotten
until today when I got
the smudged color photographs
developed from the lost roll I found
in an old suitcase in the attic
and here is a shot of my father’s
`57 Ford parked in the shed
beside my grandfather’s alley
and here, too, is Pam Hart,
whom I loved more than anything
until she dropped me in 1962,
and Ralph Truesdale, who would die
changing a tire beside the highway
sometime in the 1970’s, and my father,
who died in 1965, and the garden beyond
the shed with these roses
blurred in that old slow film,
these roses like smears of blood
from that wind, that wind of 1958.
Now just brown
As the oak leaves learn
The one way out of town.