Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Prayers, Portraits, Post-Its (5)

The Check-Out King*

He died in his mid-twenties
(typically, nobody seemed to know what of).
Got himself safely underground
before the rest of us had had our first cancer scare.
But he was always slipping past the lens,
way over at the cropped edge of the class picture
or dead in the centre in an egg of glare.
He might be at the vortex of a scrum or rumble
or flopped down in the field beyond the goal posts,
oblivious to calls to return, watching
(perhaps) an ant traverse a blade of grass.
In those days no work meant you failed.
“Have you finished, Earl?” the teacher
asked when his head sank onto his arms.
“No.” “Have you started?” “No.”
Everyone, even she, laughed. Everyone
except Earl. He rode out humour
the way a pine tree rides out rain.
A cipher makes a tricky victim:
he may become a black hole or a mirror.
Our bully picked him out only when
he'd run through everyone else repeatedly.
Earl didn't confront, didn't retreat.
He stood there and one punch knocked him flat.
He lay for a while with his face to the sky
(so long that some of us
looked up too–just blue and fluffy clouds)
and then he got up and walked away
toward wherever he lived, getting
smaller slowly, with every few steps
bringing a hand to his face and
flinging a ribbon of blood down at the dust.

[*Published in The New Quarterly, Spring 2006. It was largely thanks to the interest and encouragement shown my work by TNQ's editors, beginning in 1995, that I believed I could, and then did, publish fiction over the next few years. Kim Jernigan, TNQ's editor, is my and probably most every other writer's dream editor: open to Experiment, Old Reliable and all Points In Between; somehow combining maxima of tact and sensitivity with critical hardheadedness. When Peter Hinchcliffe, now retired, was editing alongside her, you knew you were sending your work to a tag team of acute, relentless readers. They read masses, but they still read by the word. And, miraculously, they reacted, in generous handwritten notes, even to your failures. How they did it, how Kim still does it, I can't imagine. I can only be grateful for so many civilized doors opened so casually.]

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