Nov 102016
 

Mark Cox

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Level

Each evening when they stop at a campground, he helps his father level the trailer. Everything has to be just right. You want the water to flow correctly, don’t you? You want the floors to be just like home and to wake up refreshed without a headache, don’t you?  They move from corner to corner, tightening the jacks. The boy looks at the bubble in the level. He calls out when it centers itself. Everything is ready then. There is a calm when they place the folding chairs in a semi-circle around the fire pit. They hang the gas lantern from a limb and lug the cooler onto the picnic table. Then there is always the sun’s glow against it all as it lowers beyond the trees. Now his father can begin drinking in earnest and without pretense. Now it is time for the night animals to stir.  The strong can stalk and the weak must cower from place to place feeding as quietly as possible. The boy knows how it looks to the neighbors. A happy family. Everything calculated just so. What did it matter? The leaves fell each autumn and were replaced. All the foliage here would be reduced to dirt before he could even drive a car. The light would still glow blood red on leaves at sundown. The dark was sure to come. There was nothing for him to do about it. He knows just two things for certain: he never wants to become like his father and he must control everything he can. It is just a matter of time. One day he will have a family of his own and things will be done his way– his way and no one else’s.

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Suncatchers

His sister is home already. A school bus drops her off at the door to their apartment building. The boy, though, has a short walk home, first along 57th Street, then west on McNeill. There is a row of fast food franchises on the latter, so he usually grabs takeout before the dinner rush. Their father works even later now.  He will check on them by phone around 4:30, just to make sure they are safely there. After that, who knows when he’ll get in. Sometimes the two are in bed already, having left any schoolwork out for him on the breakfast nook table. The boy looks up into the glass and steel that rises around him on all sides. It seems he lives in a world of mirrors, mirrors that reflect only other mirrors. From the street, the windows, with the sun striking them, seem the blazing scales of some book’s ancient beast. He walks faster, but not out of fear. He doesn’t want his sister’s shake to melt. He’s almost there. Mike the doorman spots him at the corner, toots his whistle and waves him into the crosswalk. Upstairs, the girl has set up TV trays in front of the sofa. She has lost weight since March. He brings her bigger portions, but that doesn’t seem to matter. She stands at the apartment’s picture window and looks across into the office building across the way. The business of the world is getting finished. Papers are being stacked, desk drawers are being opened and closed, files are being filed, phones are being answered. None of it seems real to her. Everything now seems temporary. When her brother arrives, they will choose a movie. It will be hard to watch, it always is, but they can’t help doing it. At the park feeding ducks, a Christmas morning, a day at the zoo. Somehow it doesn’t matter that they’ve seen them before, there is something new to focus on every time. They ask each other questions. They help each other remember. In some, her brother is so young that she is nowhere to be found. Time, now that is real. Sometimes they pause or slow the movie so it doesn’t pass as quickly. You can truly see the faces then, the small changes in features between smiles and complete sentences. Sometimes her brother goes to the screen and points things out in the background, things he remembers that she does not. Sometimes they freeze Mother’s face right as she is talking to them. And they finish homework that way, while her suncatchers in the window flare brightly, then dim.

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Prisoners

The girl has grown up beside the prison. She sees the walls every day. She sees the sun glint on the razor wire and imagines she can feel the massive doors opening and closing beneath her feet. State vehicles often rumble by, rarely with more than momentary faces in a window. Some nights, the girl dreams of a prisoner’s hands at her throat. The man wants help escaping. Food or a weapon. The girl is frightened and runs to tell her parents, but always they lie murdered in their bed. What is she to do now? Alone in this life with a baby sister to protect? The girl readies herself for the worst, the prisoner has followed her to sister’s room. The girl has her body between the crib and the door. And always at this point she wakes, charged with drama, unable to sleep, her heart having quickened. Tonight, she opens a window to listen. There is a distant siren, but not so much as a tomcat on her neighborhood streets. The wind bristles in the elm trees. She thinks about life behind the walls. What the cells must be like compared to her comfortable bed and her bathroom with a door on it and the air hundreds of men have breathed first. What could be yours in a place like that? How could you stay you? Who wouldn’t kill or kidnap a school girl to get out of town? Now, her mother comes in and puts her back to bed, away from the window. A mother just knows. In fact, she has her own unsettling dream of the prisoner, as does the father, as does everyone in the town. Even the prisoner dreams, though he dreams of waking up to breakfast with loud children and a wife, then facing a job which he isn’t trained to do. But soon enough the dreams will stop. Soon enough it will be morning again. And only the sun will be vaulting the guard towers, only the birds will be flying to and fro over the high prison walls.

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Headstrong

Their skeletons are still below the spillway. There is even some ravaged hide left, if one would call it that. Tough way to go, the boy thinks. The two goats even seem to be facing each other, just as they must have on the dam itself, barring each other’s passage along the narrow walkway. Not quite halfway across is where it seems to have happened, they met here and could go no further. The boy kicks a stone down and feels it in his stomach as it drops and strikes the earth. It hasn’t rained much this summer, the crops are withering, the county lake is low. The spillway is as dry as–well, as dry as these bones, now uncovered and bleaching in the high sun. Goats are gifted climbers; even plain old billies are nimble by nature. It would have been easy enough to pass. Or for one or both to turn and walk the other way. Headstrong, his mother calls it. She says it with a mixture of disdain and resignation, and just a touch of pride. She says he comes from a long line of stubborn men. Men, he knows, who get things done. Men who finish what they start. Men who make things happen no matter what the cost. The boy knows that some people thrive on conflict. He has seen the aggressive kids get their way. Maybe people are just angry that life is brief. That’s why they want everything now. The boy kicks another stone over the spillway, then a bottle cap packed with parched dirt. It lands squarely between the two dead goats, their skulls still poised at one another. What does anyone really want? To have been understood in this world, to have walked this spillway, the hallways of his school, the streets of his little town, and to be acknowledged for having been. To be considered. To be reckoned with. To be taken into account. The boy stands at the spillway till he can feel the skin burning on the back of his neck. Then he turns and goes back the way he came.

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Balls

The boy’s testicles hurt. This is something new. He straddles his bike gingerly, one foot still on a pedal, the other on the guard rail of the overpass. It is 10:30 in the morning. Traffic has lessened but is steady on the interstate. It is the long distance travelers now, not the commuters. It is the people who are really going places, seeing things he would like to see. A hundred years ago, he would be a boy by a river, watching his bobber dip in the water, watching driftwood make its way downstream or the occasional barge. This tenderness, the internet says, is part of growing up. It has to do with need and physical change in the body. He can expect a lot more where this came from. If he times it right, he can spit onto the roof of a tractor trailer. He doesn’t know why this matters, that even a little bit of himself swept out of town is better than none at all. To him, it comes out more like contempt and just feels like the thing to do. He thinks a long time before he starts tossing rocks, gravel at first then larger, trying to see how much he can get away with. There’s contact, but to his amazement it goes unnoticed, the world just speeds by, no one pulls over or calls the highway patrol. It is going to be a long summer. He could look for Jimmy and his friends, they always seem to bike around in a pack. Or he could head south and check out the new construction in that neighborhood next to school. He could snag a beer from the workers’ coolers. Anything with an element of risk. He can’t go home yet, there is nothing there but chores he’s been avoiding, help his single mother needs around the house. Cars are still streaming beneath him. The spit on that truck, it is in the next county already and he is still here on this overpass in the searing sun watching the world in its various colors pass him by. None of it, none of it sets quite right with him. He squirms a bit to get comfortable and he tugs at the crotch of his jeans, making room.

—Mark Cox

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Mark Cox’s most recent book is Natural Causes, published in the Pitt Poetry Series. More recently, he edited Jack Myers’ posthumous poetry collection The Memory of Water (New Issues). New poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, The Florida Review, New Ohio Review and Miramar. He teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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  2 Responses to “Level, Headstrong & Balls: Prose Poems — Mark Cox”

  1. Mark, you go from strength to strength: “Level” had me almost weeping with empathy and identification. But each is masterful. Keep ’em coming! Syd

  2. These churn up potent memories. Hot dam!

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