Children in the Middle Ages
Earlier that night, a middle-aged man dressed himself in a cape and green tights and shimmied up a tree to rescue his neighbor’s new kitten. We sat numbly over our steaming hamburger pie, watching first the climbing oil prices and then the live feed as our would-be hero lay in a twisted heap on the sidewalk at the base of the tree, his neck in fifty shattered pieces, blood fleeing his faulty skull in astonishing haste. In the dining room, us, meaning: you, me, and the sick child whose cough occasionally ripped across the newscaster’s flat Midwestern cadence. After dinner, you were supposed to be reading her a book about children in the middle ages, the games they played, but you kept looking up at the television. This was not a good time in our marriage, though it was perhaps a little better a time than now, at least. I don’t suppose you remember how you turned, or how we looked at one another for a handful of seconds? I thought we were speaking to each other without words, a secret language of understanding. You thought I was being weird. Eventually, one of us must have found the remote and changed the channel. Or maybe we just turned the TV off. That is where the silence begins in my memory, and I have yet to come to the other side of it. It is a sound so loud and terrible, I’m not even sure you can hear me trying to tell you this now.
First Lesson in Vietnam, 1987
How you stood on your trailer roof all that sweltering Independence Day, caped in a threadbare flag of our nation, encircled by Budweiser empties, plates of burning incense. How, lit from above by those colorful celebration bombs, you made me believe in the myth of the romantic savage. I had no idea then what you’d tried to accomplish alone in the toolshed with the extension cord, nor how, in a few years, you’d be hauled in—armed robbery, just days after the first Gulf War broke out. I saw only your hair, shoulder length, and your scarred torso bare and bony, home to a tattooed menagerie of fantasy creatures: elf, dragon, phoenix, centaur, faerie, citizens of a land to which you’d gladly defect. That, and how recklessly you lit bottle rockets and fired them from your hollowed-out walking stick, screaming in a language not spoken by people—or at least not with their tongues. And how—finally—when my father cupped his hands together and shouted, Hey, Chuck, give it a rest, guy. It’s getting pretty late, you turned, delicate as a dancer in the shimmering moonlight, and offered him what little was left of your mangled middle finger.
Old Men Laughing on a Park Bench in Early October
One grips the iron armrest; the other clutches a fedora from a distant past. Both shake and shake and shake. Their eyes stretch wide. The inner wells from which they draw their joy must be deeper than any I’ve witnessed in my short life. Watching, I forget for a moment the reason I am even sitting here, and who I believe is to blame. The three of us, and the dew glittering diamondlike on the grass, and the first few vibrant leaves of fall—for a moment we don’t seem to belong to the world of solid things. But eventually, the laughter does sputter to a stop, and the silence in its wake is so heavy and total by contrast, it is like a preview of the great long silence to come. Perhaps the old men recognize this, too, because after a minute, one of them—the one with the fedora—grins, shakes his head slowly and repeats the inciting word again: curtains. But of course: nothing this time, no reaction from either of them. The moment’s magic is all used up. It is right about then that I look over my shoulder and discover my bad news tromping through the grass. He holds his head high and I can hear him whistling his lonesome train-whistle whistle as he approaches, a violent whistle, a whistle that rips through the laughter-less quiet without conscience. I am on the tracks, and I think to myself, What can I do, what, honestly, can I do, but rise and turn my face and wait to meet whatever may be coming?
Justin Hamm‘s latest book is American Ephemeral, poems and photographs, published in spring 2017 by Aldrich Press. His work has appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, Sugar House Review, Nimrod, Hobart, The Weekly Rumpus, and elsewhere. His poetry has been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center.