All the men in his family died young:
Bad heart, bad lungs, bad luck.
A curse that left the women widows
At an awkward age – too old to remarry
But too young to give up desire completely.
The family spoke of the grim tradition
Behind closed doors, away from the young ones,
But he knew. He listened on the other side
Or through the vents late at night
When he was supposed to be asleep.
It worried him some, but not like
The other men – Uncle Gary and Uncle Morris,
His brother, all his cousins.
They carried it with them like a weight
Around their necks.
But he worried about losing his mind,
His memory; often he woke drenched in sweat
From dreams of wandering dimly lit streets
With only the vaguest notion
Of who he was or where he was going
Over the years the dreams continued,
And he came to fear sleep, choosing instead
The trance of the insomniac, the terrible moments
When he’d wake from a day sleep
And not know where he was.
His grandma and ma and aunts
Would crowd the little kitchen
On winter nights, washing the dishes,
Brewing up tea. The steam and their breath
Fogged the windows. The air, hazy
With intrigue, was like a spell.
Playing games on the cold wood floor
With his brother in the next room,
He constantly snuck glances
Toward the kitchen, occasionally catching
A careless smile from one of the women.
Sometimes it seemed the pitch of
Their voices dictated the level
Of energy in their roughhousing
Or hide and seek.
There was something to learn
From their talk, he was sure, but when
He dared to enter, perhaps to ask for
A drink or a bite of leftover dessert,
The fog seemed to lift, their voices
Losing the intoxicating and endless depth;
Surfaces and edges reappeared like the
Blunt reality that hits when the house lights
Come back on at the end of a double feature.
The science teacher drones on
About how matter can’t be destroyed
While he checks out a girl
In the front row, whose shorts keep riding up.
When the teacher pauses for a breath
The girl raises her hand
And says she doesn’t get it.
From the back of the room, someone says,
“Oh, she gets it all right –
She gets some every day.”
The teacher doesn’t hear
Or doesn’t care and asks the girl what she means.
“What about wood after it burns?” she asks.
“And what about our bodies
After we die?” The teacher replies
That it’s simple. The molecules, the atoms,
All of it goes into the air or dirt.
The girl shifts in her seat.
“But what do they do?
How do they go on after being part of something?”
He quits staring at her legs and watches
For the teacher’s response.
Mr. Sanford scratches at his bald spot
And stares at the clock. “Well,
That’s all we have time for today.
Read the rest of chapter five for tomorrow.”
As he leaves class, he passes the girl
And opens his mouth to tell her
He wanted the answer, too,
But one of the guys in the back row
Speaks first, and the moment is gone.
As he enters the stream of bodies
Flooding the hall, he tries to believe
The chance has only been displaced,
Moved somewhere else, hopefully somewhere
Within his reach.
John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Potomac Review, Redivider, Portland Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Arcadia, Two Thirds North, Midwestern Gothic, Bitter Oleander, and many others. His short story collection is now available from Underground Voices, and his poetry chapbook “Near Harmony” is available from Flutter Press. For more information, please visit https://john-abbott-author.webnode.page/