The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Bernard Jankowski
AFTER TOMMY'S MOM LEFT HER NOTE
of simple eternal truth
to her husband,
"I couldn't live with you and
I couldn't live without you,"
and ended it
in the traditional suburban way:
alone in the garage
with the family station wagon
Tommy threw his soul
He wasn't tall or quick or talented,
so he sagely focused
on the one part of the game
you can control with your will: defense.
He spent the afternoons
perfecting his defensive slide,
palms up, eyes focused,
shuffling like a possessed crab
up and down the neighborhood streets,
defending imaginary players,
shutting down the ghosts.
LOUIE, THE HUNGARIAN CHEF, HURLED THE PLATE
like a Frisbee,
six inches from my head,
it smashed against the wall.
He had caught me daydreaming again,
as the piles of dirty plates rose
on the shiny silver countertop.
I was 13, barely 5 feet tall,
and had been washing pots
at the country club
for a few months,
tucked in the back corner
of the kitchen
with the yellowed wall tiles,
where the cooks tossed the huge pots
crusted with minestrone and chili.
I had proved my mettle in that corner
of steam and soap and grime
and had graduated to washing dishes a few nights
out in the bright lights of the general kitchen.
My first day on the job
Louie handed me a scalding pan,
"Here pot-washer, take this."
As my hand blistered and
my face writhed in pain,
he walked off proud and laughing,
"Now you know."
Once, a tall stack of plates
slipped from my hands.
The concentrated crash
on the tile floor
spilled into the dining room,
the bustle of the kitchen froze,
waiters and waitresses,
line cooks, salad chefs,
they all looked at Louie
who glared at me, picked up his butcher knife,
until Thomas, my co-dishwasher,
a visiting student from Liberia,
stepped in and wagged his finger,
"No, Louie, No."
Louie held firm for a minute,
then waved his knife with a flourish,
"clean it up, you little twerp, quick."
After all the cooks left,
Thomas and I were left
to clean up and close the kitchen.
Just us and the night manager,
who was into his fourth stiff Bourbon,
taking deep thoughtful drags on his cigarettes
alone in the darkness at the bar.
Thomas grabbed his broomstick and said,
"You see this stick young man?
I am that hard, brother,
that hard my young buck."
He held the broomstick like a mic,
"One day, after I get my diploma
and return to Liberia,
I will stand before thousands
and call out,
My people! My people!
It is time for King Louie to come down!"
"My people! My people!"
Thomas continued his chant,
as he cradled
the broom like a bride,
slipping and waltzing across
the freshly mopped floors.
THE AIR IS LATE NOVEMBER THIN
our knees pump up and down,
chest-high, all of us boys
in a circle around Chuckie.
We grunt in unison
at the bottom of each fourth step,
our toes frozen inside stiff cleats,
pounding on the rock hard dirt
of our worn-out practice field.
Coach waves his hands in the air, paces,
rants, "Chuckie's Ready Today!
Who wants Chuckie?!
Who can handle Chuckie Boy?!"
Taunts us 85 pounders
to leap into the circle
with the growling, wild-eyed,
transformed Charles Cosimano.
Already Chuckie leveled Donnell,
sent him to the sidelines.
I hear him
try to contain his whimpers,
as he clutches
his newly separated shoulder.
"Do you boys want it?!
To play for the best God-damned team in Pennsylvania!?
Who wants to be a real Tornado?! Holmes!"
Coach calls out and Holmes,
all 73 pounds of him, leaps forward
into Chuckie's space.
Chuckie wheels and lays him out clean,
shoulder to shoulder,
then grunts over the fallen Holmes,
"eeh, eeh," and beckons for another.
All of us boys
in a man's lottery now.
Our breath tight,
the light fading,
forced to face
those deep-down first fears,
the ones you use
to step up and hit.
COACH ZOULIAS STOOD IN THE SNOW
beneath the flickering Shell Gasoline sign
off Route 15 just north of Mechanicsburg
as the bus pulled up and the doors swung open.
He bounded onto the bus with the same energy
as when, as our assistant coach,
he got in his stance and barked out "Defense!"
which was as dear to his heart
as the pursuit of happiness was to Jefferson.
We stopped to pick up Coach Zoulias
on our way into the darkness
to play in Allentown or Haverford or
Bethlehem or Elizabethtown.
To play our rugged Division III opponent:
Moravian or Ursinsus or Muhlenberg or Frankin and Marshall.
Division III basketball,
where the guards were decent, the forwards average,
and the thick-thighed big men clumsy
with five count 'em five hard fouls to give.
The snow kept coming and soon
we would pull into town in the darkness.
Coach Ober's efforts at changing our routine
--no pregame meal, a big pregame meal,
take a cold shower when we arrived--
never bore fruit.
We'd exit with our tails between our legs,
me sitting next to the 6 foot 8 inch Al Fultz,
his bony knee jabbing directly into my thigh,
with a couple guys in the back
sneaking a joint in the bathroom
while the coaches slept up front.
Nothing to dream on,
the road indecipherable out the window
through the ticks of sleet and snow,
a blur of lost neon now and again,
until we were down from the mountains
and through Harrisburg or York
into the blank silent fields of southern Pennsylvania.
We usually played so poorly the coaches
wouldn't stop for burgers,
so we'd pull back into Westminster at 2 a.m.
Nothing was open,
a few beers in the fridge,
maybe a stick of pepperoni.
We'd bitch about the loss the trip the coach the refs
and pass out before dawn.
Wake to hit classes and then practice
the next afternoon, where Coach Zoulias
would get down into his stance
and say, "Defense! Defense! You guys don't play defense!"
"It's all in your head!" Coach Ober would chime in.
"What are you playing for anyway?"
Coach used to ask us.
© Copyright 2006-7 by Cook Communication