Knockout

by Christopher Raley

 

Spaghetti is always better the second night.

It has been put, noodles and sauce,

in Tupperware in the fridge, and heating it up

 

you watch it soften to congealing,

adding a little water from the sink and

a little, oh, a little more of what’s left

 

of last night’s wine.  It’s all one now,

not just noodles from the colander

and sauce ladled on top, so you swirl it together

 

on your plate with your fork and your bread,

but now all of it blended, and all that being done,

you blow it and pitch fork wads sucking in

 

sloppy and hot.  Pretty soon the one growing older

tells you he hates tests, what with there

being one tomorrow, but his trombone solo

 

is coming along nicely.  I picture as he talks

the slide quick jerking to positions, and his brow

furrowed on the chart before him.  Slide in positions

 

close in and far out, fingers resting against the bell;

slide, the kinetic of his mind seeing the notes; slide, close

in or far down to the floor.  Highs and lows in the bell of his mouth.

 

And the boy looks across the table at his brother,

older and recognized, forging the path he wants to follow.

 

Eagerly, almost greedily, he puts himself in the mold.

No star testing today, I was glad about that (his happy face

has no hint there was ever worry) but I lost at knockout—

 

the school yard version of vying for position.  I rehearse

playground images of him alone, quiet eyes looking

for his own world of protection and then the times

 

of tentative longing toward groups of boys safe

in the rough embrace of tease and tag and arms around shoulders,

and then the running and laughing, the hiding and seeking to be found,

 

and now the fragile pride, the wound and competition, competition,

always competition.

 

Bread on the table disappears in snatches

as the talk elaborates between them.  More and more

smears of sauce we sop up from our plates, so the sauce

 

and the butter and the garlic melt hot with the crunch

of the toasted bread.  We are full but our mouths are pursing and forming

and there is always bread left over (as if bundles full) and taking it is luxury

 

or excuse.

 

You see, every day I drive the boy to school

to where the older one has already ridden his bike.

I follow the driveway through the parking lot

 

to where it narrows at the school yard then makes

the angles of the three chain link fence walls

of the rectangle playground.  On the other side, in the yard,

 

the older one is already playing knockout.  Smiling,

he jostles with the others and pauses to make

a serious comment about so and so’s shot, that was well done,

 

(and here I see in him the youth of a boy still miming);

tensing as the line draws him near the mark,

calling for the ball, crouching for the trailing shot—

 

all in a glimpse and I have moved on in my own line

and missed the out-come.

 

I drive around to the far side and out

to the other end of the school yard where the cars

are backed up, edging forward length by length.

 

Dark silhouettes of kids through back seat glass

jostle and jerk (seat belts and doors) and burst

out of cars as if spat onto the pavement.

 

Then we pull up to the mark of the orange cones.

I love you. The boy pulls his back pack close.

Love you kiddo.  The door opens, See ya dad.

 

I don’t expect to hear it.  Not just then.

I only know he needs to hear it to take it with him

out of the door to the world around us.

 

The window motors grind and the glass slides down

as playground shouts, screams and laughters come piercing in.

He crosses the windshield waving, Have fun today, waving.

 

Smile lit face as if no worry was ever there: OK, got it!

Window motors grind and I turn up music to ease the silence.

 

And they are gone, out of my reach

to the line and the joking and the watching

and the suspense, the crouching, the one chance that matters—

 

the orange ball arcs toward the backboard.

 

So when the food is hot, but the plates are clearing

and you finally get them talking about all the time you missed them—

when you really get them talking, you simply can’t bear to let it go.

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