I let a friend knock me to the ground,
hold me down, and speak
words I can no longer hear.
I lay there a moment afterward,
wondering if I could be blamed
for the accident.
I had kicked a stick.
It hit my friend behind the knees.
It couldn’t have hurt
more than his pride. But that’s it,
the deepest wound — so shallow
an toe-flicked limb might split it wide.
We’d seen a hundred movies
in which men stood alone,
brazen before their blazing ends.
If his father’d faced his own demons,
he hadn’t fared as well.
He appeared to us earlier that day,
grizzled, drained; waving a flanneled arm
out the window of a rust-choked van.
“Want a ride? Where you headed?”
We were pinching butts
from ashtrays at the Community Market,
feeding our newborn habits for nicotine.
Inside, his wardrobe lay flung about,
unpacked, unwashed. Things reeked
of staleness and earth —
he and his pal were hauling hibiscus.
The plants were in green plastic pots
and stood a few feet tall.
They planned to plant the bushes
in the gardens of some folks he knew.
Come spring, they’d open pink flowers.
We were crossing the river.
In a few miles, we’d arrive.
My friend’s father turned in his seat,
seeming interested to know me.
I said I played guitar,
dug the bands SubHumAnz, Avail.
“They cover John Cougar,
don’t they?” my friend’s father asked.
“That song, ‘Pink Houses’?”
He loved that song, he said.
He sang a few bars, softly,
in a way I couldn’t get out of my head
and haven’t managed yet to shake:
There’s winners, and there’s losers.
But it ain’t no big deal.
My friend pinched a leaf. Tore it off.
Crumbled the green flake in his fist.
“It’s ‘But they ain’t no big deal,’” he said.
The big man who was driving
caught sight of this in the rear view.
“Leave it,” he said. “Or you walk home.”
“It’s freezing out,” my friend’s father said.
To his son, he said, “You sure?
I believe it goes the way I sang it.”
I waited for my friend to say, “No.”
But he held onto the leaf,
stared at his feet, and said, “Okay. Sure.”
I’m not sure he saw his father again.
I never did. I hardly saw my friend,
after he let me up off the ground.
“Let’s take the ride,” I’d said. “It’s cold.”
When my friend stepped forward —
he might’ve been for the store instead.
I later learned his father’d snuck in
and stolen a samurai sword he’d given him,
and money, and his mother’s jewelry.
Twenty years have passed. At four a.m.
my newborn son won’t sleep.
Caring for him’s worn me to a nub.
While he squirms against my chest,
I glimpse my friend in the doorway
to his room, his hand against the wall.
I doubt he imagined he’d know
the feeling of being broken into,
divorced by intrusion from the familiar.
While the silence around me bends
to each of my son’s grunts and wails,
I feel the way I felt, on the ground,
wondering: had I meant him harm?
I can’t hear him speaking,
but I can hear Mellencamp’s lyrics
through the hibiscus bouquet,
soft as my friend’s father’d sung them.
I hum them now. I hum, and I hope.