Forty years since the beating, over a girl,
the girl, after school as everyone watched,
Roman spectators rooting for the underdog,
him, of all people, new kid in school
with an Elvis smile and hair thick as wet hay.
He hadn’t pursued her; she chose him,
so how could he resist, despite the clunky
ring on her finger, secured with candle wax,
the whispered midnight growls on the phone,
“Stay away from Julie, mother-fucker”?
Friends warned him about Todd—
meanest punk at Cor Jesu, a senior
who could press two hundred,
with scars shaped like lilies
streaking up each side of his face.
Nobody messed with Todd.
She was fourteen, he, a year older,
her breasts arching from the cashmere
like fleshy songs. She purred into his ear
that she and Todd were through
(the word clinking in his brain like a loose rivet),
necked with him after school in the ’58 Impala,
obscured by hedges of blazing forsythia.
He was scared but not enough—
nothing could scare him enough
from what he dreamed about every night.
Of course he had noticed, everyone noticed her,
she, always that Jaguar in the other lane,
a car he would never drive, so out of range
it almost didn’t exist. Yet the tulipy smiles,
bashful eyes, her warmth on his back
as he dialed the locker combination.
A miracle, he thought, like the goddess
in a book they were reading in Classics:
bride of Mars, God of War.
When he showed up a week or so
after the defeat, a hero by default,
both eyes blackened and bulging,
like lumps of coal, his mouth torn askew,
zippered at each end with stitches,
a front tooth missing, taut gauze
holding an elbow together, she floating
beside him, her slender arm braced round
his waist, the fat letter of his track jersey
thumping on her chest, the crowds parted
as they passed, stared, might have kneeled
in another age. For they were royalty now
suffering no company but each other—
until summer vacation at least
when she slyly looked at someone else.
They broke up with less fanfare
than the pop of a firecracker.
he had foreseen it all along,
slave of fate, but not its fool.
And now, decades later,
what he remembers most
is the price, his mangled face,
not her glowing cheekbones and moist lips,
Todd’s murderous, flaming eyes,
not her eyes, calm as clouds,
the furious steel flesh smashing into his body,
not her soothing, feathered, holy flesh . . .
not the dove, not easy redemption,
but a jealous hawk god. And its kill.
Olympus too he remembers—
less his fleeting ascension and glimpse
than the frantic plunge from such height
with no brakes.
—from Rattle #22, Winter 2004