Losing a Ring
My father blamed himself. My mother said
he should have listened. Who gives
a four-year-old a gold ring?
And that’s how
it was left, like a tree ring on a stump,
like the ring of a hammer on a nail.
Today, I have a box, tucked with silver
quarters, pocketknives, and tired watches.
I dole them out to my grandchildren
as they reach an age
when time is more a hallway to another room,
than a four-year-old’s circle within circles,
and sometimes after Sunday dinner,
the dishes dried, the pots and pans stacked
in a cabinet too small to hold them,
I bury my head in my hands and listen
to the empty house, the evening
coming down from the horizon, until sorrow
rings with wind, and like my mother,
there’s nothing left to give.
A folding metal chair in industrial
brown paint, the yellow stencil
of Brother’s Funeral Home
on the back rest, a sparrow’s nest
inside a scuffed motorcycle helmet,
grass and string and feather.
A canning jar on the work bench
filled with nuts and bolts,
odd wood screws that once kept
a swing fastened, a glass door sliding
open into the garden. Now, clouded
with dust, a smear of bicycle chain
grease, its blue catches the light,
bells like a gourd,
whittled glass embossed with a name
of a company known for canning,
for storage, for keeping
summer into winter.
Rehearsing for the Winter Concert
In the trumpet section of the junior high school band,
the boys tongue quarter notes, more or less, in time.
They sit in two semi-circles behind shop-made wooden
music stands. Between songs, one eighth grader throws
his pocketknife into the wood. Sometimes it sticks.
Usually, it clatters to the floor at his feet.
The band director fails to hear the whack
of the knife. He’s focused on the two rows
of clarinets to his right, hoping to avoid the frequent
squawk of a poorly mouthed reed. The loveliest girls
in the school play silver flutes. They perch in a row
in front of the bandstand. Near the instrument closet,
behind the trombones and the single sousaphone,
the drums are in disarray, clicking their sticks,
tapping rims instead of skins. All snares, not a single
bass, since the mononucleosis hit. The director
is a patient man. He only raises his voice to the trumpets,
who dodge knives and squeeze spit valves, or
to the drummers who confuse their sticks for rapiers.
The first chair saxophonist in horned rimmed glasses
squeezes vibration from his alto with pubescent verve.
Somehow songs like Sentimental Journey
emerge recognizable to the parents on concert night.
Their memories fill in the gaps with big bands,
how they loved to swing at roadhouses to Bugle Boy,
when chaos wore a uniform, and the trumpets
flashed from the stage like an assembly line
for brass shell casings, and the solo drummer
banged out battles to which they could dance.
Walking through my favorite park,
the one with ducks and two
black swans, I was met
by boys from the Catholic school.
I knew them from first communion,
from little league baseball.
They told me I could either jump
in the lake, or they’d throw me.
I tried to walk away, but the loudest
grabbed the back of my pants and jerked
my underwear. Ragged they called it.
My underwear was new, just
taken from the Sears package.
I thought of my mother, searching
the catalogue for bargains
to keep her children presentable.
Now, they were torn, elastic band
ripped into a handle. I was embarrassed
as much for her as for myself.
I scanned their eyes for the joke of it,
for baseball and sunflower seeds,
for the wafer that would have tasted better
with salsa. I noticed Paul, my teammate
from Meadow Gold. His expression
was flat, curious like a first time
I stepped into the lake, rather than
get tossed onto the rocks,
arms raised, fists
mute, rather than bloodying noses.
I walked into the lake
and kept walking, the water rising
up to the armpits of my new shirt.
I heard the Catholic boys laughing,
then yelling for me to come back.
It was over they said. But it wasn’t
over until my mother looked up
from the catalogue, and saw me
sneaking in from the garage.
I waded and dogpaddled to the opposite
bank, never turning around, kept on
until the swans parted and closed
between us. No one loves a coward,
except a mother,
and that is where the pain floats.
New clothes came once a year
before the school bell rang. She wanted
me fresh like celery when it snaps,
radish, turnip, cabbage.
Al Ortolani’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Rattle, poetrybay, diode, New York Quarterly, and Chiron. Ortolani has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a 2019 recipient of the Rattle Chapbook Series Award for Hansel and Gretel Get the Word on the Street. His newest collection, The Taco Boat, will be released from New York Quarterly Books in October.