“Things and How They Work” by Ron Koertge

Ron Koertge


In grade school a girl who could draw
guided my hand while I tried for a horse
that resembled a horse.
I didn’t mind that she was better at drawing.
I could play shortstop and she couldn’t.
I told my parents about her. They said, “Well, 
maybe she could draw blueprints.” 
They were practical. Art was just short
for Arthur. From school right to work. 
Like the thigh bone connected to some
other bone.
Everybody worked. All the time. My math 
teacher, Mr. Taylor, put on a white apron, 
a paper hat and handed ice cream cones 
across a counter all summer.
My hometown wasn’t much, but one part
of it was a real Christmas card: Miller’s pond 
froze over every winter and we could skate there. 
With a fire and everything. 
Mr. Taylor showed up with his littlest daughter.
He was a really good skater. Graceful.
Not a word I’d say out loud then, but he was.
My mother was there, just waiting for me 
and watching. When I sat down for a minute 
she said, “He’s been to Rome. Isn’t that 
How did he end up in a small town east
of the Mississippi, a town that worshipped
high school basketball and especially 
our skyscraper center who could score outside 
the paint, too?
I didn’t actually ask but my mom whispered, 
“Things don’t always work out, honey.”
I started to ride my bike by Mr. Taylor’s house. 
What things didn’t work out for him, the skater 
from Rome?
Sometimes he waved, sometimes not, probably 
lost in thought. I liked taking phrases like that
Thought as a place someone could get lost
in, like a national park, but with no bears. 
Not real ones, anyway.
Once I saw his wife standing in a blow-up kiddy 
pool smoking a cigarette and crying, holding 
her house dress up around her knees. 
And then I’d think house dress house dress
house dress until it turned into somebody
whispering in another language.
Basketball was a language everybody understood.
Jack, Marcus, and I listened to away games on
 the radio and went to home games. 
We liked being at the high school where we’d
end up. The halls were wide and didn’t smell 
like disinfectant so much.
There were trophy cases. Famous graduates.
Some not so famous who we could see every
day behind a counter or fixing a car.
Friday nights, the gym was a madhouse. 
Jack’s mom went to Mass every day and twice 
on Sunday, so he called the gym
Shrine of the Deadly Hook Shot because Terry
Armstrong besides being six-ten was unstoppable 
with his left hand.
The town was like a graveyard during home games.
Even the cops and the firemen were there, hoping
nobody called in, then taking it easy on the parties
“Going to state,” everybody said. “Terry’ll win
it for us. It’s his last year!” 
Then the team went to Oak Park for the regionals.
They looked big even on the radio. They outscored
us, and outran us. Their center blocked shot after
shot. We lost 102–68. And that was that.
Things don’t always work out.
The old guys who drank coffee every morning
at Gus’s dug a grave and pushed Terry into it.
They called him a traitor and a coward and a
He finished the year, graduated and got a job
selling Oldsmobiles.
My friends and I rode by the car lot, saw him 
standing around in a suit that belonged to a giant. 
Then Simic Motors put up a rim behind
the service bays and a customer could go
one-on-one with the star salesman.
We watched Terry in hard-soled shoes
handle fat guys at lunchtime, hitting from
anywhere until one day he got into it 
under the basket and broke some guy’s nose 
with an elbow. A guy who did not drive off 
the lot in a new Rocket 88. 
After that, the backstop came down.
Terry kind of melted into the town
like everybody else who lived there
and probably planned to die there.
He married Marsha Noyse from Troy. 
They went to St. Louis for their honeymoon.
Jack, Marcus, and I got together every night
We roamed the town on our bikes, knew back 
streets and alleys. 
Terry’s house was our last stop because he shot 
100 free throws after dinner. One miss before 
he got to 100 and he’d start over. 
Almost dark, the sound the ball made 
dropping through the net so fast was like
people whispering in church. 
If he saw us over there he didn’t let on,
or maybe he liked spectators—three where
there used to be hundreds. 
Once the ball bounced off the rim and,
glowing like a planet, rolled out of the driveway 
and toward us, 
“Little help,” he said finally. One of us tossed 
it to him. Marsha came out of the back door, 
holding a baby. She watched him start over.
“What the fuck, Terry.” We looked at each other,
me and Marcus and Jack I mean, and grinned.
We said “What the fuck, Terry,” all the time
for awhile. We’d stare at a giant cone from
Dairy Delight and say it. 
A girl we knew would look at us and smile
so we’d say it. Jack would make a circus
catch in left field and we’d say it. 
Terry stopped shooting free throws.
When we cruised by, we heard the baby crying
and them arguing. So we didn’t want to say 
it anymore. 
Then one night there he was again. Marsha
on the back steps with the kid on her lap,  
counting for Terry, waving the baby’s arms 
at one, two, twenty-two, forty-five.
We counted, too. Not loud but we did it. 
“Don’t miss,” Jack whispered. Seventy-five, 
A wind pushed the trees around.
Their shadows came for us, then stepped
back. We held our breath at ninety-nine. 
Marsha stood up. Held out the baby, and Terry
took it.
“See you guys,” he said without looking at us.
The door closed behind them. The porch
light went out. 

from Rattle #77, Fall 2022


Ron Koertge: “In the Midwest, people live for basketball. NCAA stuff, of course, but also high school ball. Stats filled the pages of local newspapers. Fans drove hundreds of miles for away games. Identification with a local team and a local hero was standard fare. ‘Things and How They Work’ chronicles a period of madness, both March Madness and generic basketball madness. The boys in the poem see how things work as they watch Terry’s star rise and quickly fall.” (web)

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