ON RETURNING: MORRO BAY, CA
The kid I once bummed smokes with is in the Marines,
and tells me pulling the trigger just another job,
like keeping the lights on, the grass on lawns cut short.
He's the same boy who tried to kiss me during a slumber party
and fled, not to be found. In grade school, his father
gave him a ball peen hammer and showed him
how to grab the biggest rabbit by the back of the neck
and choose the blow carefully, behind the ear, where
the bone is soft, to prevent the animal from twisting,
the claws from raking the back of his hand. He walked
ten miles to my house through thistle and sage break
hiding from every rustle. The sound of the hammer,
he said, is like hearing a tooth break under your tongue.
Of course, when he left the rabbit cage open, small chewed bones
strewn by coyotes was the only alternative. The problem is,
his mother said, Tmy boy doesn't know hunger.
At Morro Bay High, bells ring in the summer dark.
The gates won't open. Locked for August.
Metal pipe bulges with steam into the road.
Perhaps the hunger is just not the right kind.
My friend writes that he found himself
in the sluggish, thick heat of Texas, barrel of a rifle
hot to the touch, the simplicity of having a target,
the heat to grapple, running obstacles in the sun.
My mother tells me she can no longer tell what happened
from what she wants to happen. She says this is age.
Behind the curtains to her house, what looks like a body
hanging from a ceiling fan, I remind myself are just sinister
shadows cast by ferns. Trash bags flood the empty yard.
My friend writes, a rifle is a form of certainty.
One alternative is to keep walking. An otter burrows in the still,
pale scrim of oil on the shore. A tire floats like someone dozing
at a cocktail party. They say the same stream that feeds the marsh
with water will eventually fill it in with silt. The same kind
of generosity of not knowing where the roads go could be the one
thing to keep you moving. To say walking away is a simple question
of turning out the lights, letting the shadows unfold
from their terrible human shape and become general.
I'd like to make a case for not surrendering. Or,
that we are just sleeping houses in a landscape, the shape
of the driver's face, as he turns and looks at where he saw
movement, and then whatever we dream about an inexorable moving on.
Benjamin Balthaser is Assistant Professor Multi-Ethnic Literature at Indiana University, South Bend. His critical monograph Anti-Imperialist Modernism: Race and Transnational Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War will be available from University of Michigan Press December 2015, and his collection of poems, Dedication, was published by Partisan Press in 2011. Other critical and creative work of his has appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, American Quarterly, The Minnesota Review, and elsewhere.