After the War for Independence
Those boys in the basement, middle-schoolers, unruly
Kiss pinballing among the wood panels—Destroyer—,
scent of model glue & some step-mother’s menthols
heavy in the already heavy air. No A/C.
The fifth of July. Five of us at a table
unravelling duds & unspent bottle rockets
collecting silver powder on paper sheets, shaking it
into larger & larger stockpiles beside stolen
rolling paper. We’d pick up each unused fuse,
measure its length. The seventies, the five boros
seemed so close to detonation, the whole country.
We were mesmerized by destruction on tv,
on the streets, on movie screens in the cinemas
we snuck into, the films rated R for nudity,
language, & violence. We were all braggadocio.
This was the adult world we were prepping for,
so why wouldn’t we strive to make a bigger bang,
something louder, like a forgotten villain,
harbinger of chaos & laughter. The rest couldn’t know
one of us would blow up a pay phone hoping for
a cavalcade of dimes, & he couldn’t know just then,
as the lit fuse dwindled toward detonation,
a woman would need to make a call.
Was it the concussion that made our windows tremble?
This wasn’t Belfast or London. Not Beirut or Tel Aviv.
The only Troubles we knew were the ones we sought
or in electric guitar squeal & bursts of percussion.
There was no ideology beyond boredom & curiosity,
beyond nameless frustration. In the discussions later
he lacked remorse, asserted only that she’d been unlucky
—wrong place, wrong time, as if my friend were a sudden
acolyte of fate, some accursed angel. If I remained silent
it was because I was culpable, because I was lonely
& knew not to snitch, because I realized such a news story
might be pushed back to page three when a body was found,
headless, with no ID in a dumpster. But I couldn’t know that
except in hindsight. Face facts: we were thirteen,
incapable of perceiving anyone’s pain but our own,
which was existential & without words. All that night
I used the abacus of a Rosary to tally up my sins,
sum up my years to come in Purgatory. The smell outside
all sulphur & brimstone when the sun finally burned
the haze away. How the asphalt almost melted; it glowed
watery in the distance like a mirage. The beat cops
talked to so many in the neighborhood for a few days.
One said he was listening to every lead. Another,
that the woman lost an ear, her face scalded & scarred.
Someone said he picked up from the other side of the police tape
fifteen dollars in change. That was the last time we spoke
though I’d continue to give him a nod when we passed
or between classes, because that’s how conspirators work.
How cool that basement was, though I refused to go back,
choosing to sweat in front of Wile E. Coyote’s explosions.
The Road Runner always fast enough. When the phone rang
I wouldn’t answer it, just let it jingle in the empty kitchen.
Chimes from around the corner remind me,
yet again, to be mindful
that I’ve a sweet tooth—the ice cream man,
& me with half a lawn still needing to be mown.
Summer’s been full of chores since childhood
though I miss the pool parties
I was never invited to, the rumor of them
blown like prayer flags in the almost-wind.
So much laughter behind redwood fences.
Disco hits simmering. Was there dancing?
Laundry hung heavy on a makeshift line then
until I collected jeans & t-shirts in a basket,
the whole time fantasizing of cannonballs
& bikinis, grill smoke & Coca-Cola, a classmate’s
ringing laughter. Despite nostalgia
there was little good about the old days—
God like Santa Claus: I was often praying for something.
Desire & disappointment. The meager allowance
my mother could afford afforded me little.
I pushed the mower so its rusty blades turned
until cooler street corner evenings called
seemingly free of it all. I still remember
two girls, blonde pony tails bobbing,
the scent of chlorine like Channel No. 5.,
singing into their chocolate cones,
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir.
How carefree their voices, even
as dusk settled into the sycamores
& the first bats unfurled themselves
into dark hunters that circled our street.