MAN ON THE FLOOR
I remember my thirteen-year-old self walking through my sister’s freshman dorm as the girls yelled, “Man on the floor!
Man on the floor!” and I, not yet a man but hoping, looked for any excuse to fetch forgotten items from the car
or just stand in that hallway soaking in that mix of fear, annoyance and flirtation. My idea of a man then was probably my father’s
paycheck-earning, pipe-smoking, golf-ball-whacking, bourbon-swilling silence or James Bond’s unstirred cool. No, it was probably
just playing football, basketball—and baseball until someone learned to throw a curve. And girls—Courtney Carron, in particular that fall,
and dreams of getting a hand under her tight shirt. Even over the bra would have had me standing taller for a week. Once my dad,
after a hot afternoon of golf and a cart of cold beers, broke a rib mowing the lawn when the mower overheated and
kicked back into his chest. I’d been hearing the mower roar and stop, roar and stop, watching my father search through the grass
before screwing something back in and restarting, but I didn’t know until afterwards that the mower was out of oil.
So when my father tiptoed around the house, saying, “I’m fine,” through gritted teeth, I wanted to shout, “Just say it hurts” and
“Just say you’re an idiot.” Of all the things I’d sworn I’d do differently than him, my ability to admit my idiocy has never developed.
I’ve learned to apologize, but—there’s always a “but” as I need to explain why every stupid thing I’ve ever done
seemed like a good idea at the time and I wonder if the girls were really yelling, “Idiot on the floor! Idiot on the floor!”
The first year I taught, I wore sneakers to school because I didn’t have any adult shoes. My boss suggested I take charge of the class more:
use a point system, assign seats and buy some shoes. But I didn’t want to make the class any more oppressive than it already was
so I threw her a bone and bought semi-comfortable shoes that weren’t too dorky. The shoes seemed like one more part
of the disguise I was sure they’d all figure out someday. They say everyone feels powerless; the last to know they have power
are those who have it. Is that true for the clueless as well? What clues have I missed? I think of Edie years ago
calling me an asshole. I had to agree. “But,” I wanted to explain, “I’d spent years dreaming of that night—
when we climbed into your parents’ car in that dark garage and laid the seats flat, when I was finally inside you—
I wasn’t thinking about Kerry arriving from LA in a week—” but Edie didn’t want to hear it. And I didn’t try to explain. How could I?
The day before he died, my father awoke in his hospital bed and said, “Everything in Springfield is just like it was—
Dreisen’s Fountain, McDougal’s Grocery. The whole street is the same.” “Did you see anyone there?” I asked,
not sure if it was dream or dementia. But my father’s eyes had turned to the wall. Sensing the end—hoping really,
because the next stop was a nursing home he’d made clear he never wanted to see—I went to get my family from the lounge.
All I could hear was the squeak of my semi-adult shoes on linoleum in that hospital hall. Stroke and dementia
had softened my father, made him kinder. He seemed to appreciate us all more. “You’re a better father than I was,”
he said one night after he’d watched me coach Will in some peewee basketball game and if he wasn’t my father
I would have hugged him, but I needed a stroke myself to break the habits of our long history. “Thanks” is all I could sputter,
not “The rules have changed. You did your best.” In class, a student said, “You forget 90% of your dreams
in the first ten minutes you’re awake.” What percent of my dreams did I forget by age twenty? The list of failings
my thirteen-year-old self nurtures increases by one. Some Septembers the freshmen boys’ attempts to saunter down the halls
are so uncertain, it’s as if the ground is shifting. I want to shout, “Man on the floor!” to embolden their strides
if only for a moment. I think of having yelled at my own son, now probably back from school and rooted
to the couch and his computer, and I cringe at how much I sounded like my own father: sarcastic, impatient,
wanting the problem solved now. When I open the door he’s already glued to his laptop eating Chex Mix. “Sorry,” I say.
“What?” he says, trying to keep one eye on me and one on the screen. “I’m an idiot,” I say. And he flips it shut
and says, “What?” Before I can say, “But …” the dog starts barking and barking. I don’t know what he’s trying to say.
I kneel on the floor to calm him, but his barking grows more frenzied, his furious tail sweeps magazines off the tables.
The dog picks up a toy and begins a high-pitched whine that sounds like singing. My son is asking, “What are you doing?”
I shake my head. It doesn’t matter what I say, just what I do. The dog keeps singing. My son’s brow furrows in confusion and concern.
But I can only lay back on the floor, close my eyes and slow my breath as if I could fall asleep and wake up and start all over again.
from Rattle #42, Winter 2013
2013 Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist
[ download audio]
Jack Powers: “I wrote the first draft of ‘Man on the Floor’ in my head while walking my dog. Charlie and our walk figured prominently in the early drafts. Although most of it ended up on the cutting room floor, the cadence of a walk and the in-and-out-of-my-head movement of my brain on a walk seem to still be there. And Charlie still gets a little song at the end.”