‘H-O-R-S’ and other poems
By: Jesse Wolfe
Tuesdays—dad’s day—when mom worked late
at the hospital, he collected us
from school for lazy rounds of HORSE.
Sun crept behind the garage,
we slipped on sweaters, shots clanged
off the rim. Games dragged on
when leaders failed to clench their wins.
One dangled me in no-man’s-land,
H-O-R-S by myself.
Dad, shooting first, left a free throw
short. A series of images reorganized
in my 10-year-old brain. A lefty layup
he missed that left me victorious.
My “comebacks,” spaced far enough apart
to appear genuine. Had months of games
been craftily wrought apologies?
Usually I wandered north,
flanked by the ocean on my left,
hair matted and wet,
mud squelching between my toes,
foraging for sand crabs
in widening tides.
Delighted and cruel,
I plunged my hands in their liminal pools.
Defenseless in the light,
they burrowed and buried themselves.
I plopped them in my plastic pail.
Doubling back, I saw my footsteps wove
like drunkards’ …
Mom flapped and folded towels,
waving goodbye to a bare-chested man …
at the edge of the sand—
scoured my scalp and ankles, feet and hands.
Driving home, mom blasted the radio,
sang with goofy faces.
Dad waited with burgers he’d grilled
and lemonade from our backyard tree.
I imagine their eye contact—
Standing at the base of a jungle gym slide
as my daughter beams down,
sifting through sediments of time
I imagine plunging ahead
without turning back to look for mom.
I’d have fled a premature fear
with placid evenings held in store!—
I’d bike home by evening
as mom pulled in the driveway in her uniform.
We were still a sort of united team,
as we bent our heads at the table for grace
then turned at once to our loaded plates.
She assumed her enigmatic smile
as he sipped his nightly wine.
Once, as she and I chopped vegetables
for one of the copious meals he made,
she recounted a scene from before my birth:
belly swollen, she sat on the couch
while he set a row of picture books
on shelves he’d hewn from a fallen oak.
At my graduation on the other coast,
dad arrived first, met my fiancée,
and said I’d avoid all of his mistakes.
Mom’s flight landed the following day.
My marriage feels intact, secure:
an auto gliding down an open road.
My wife still seems to admire me—
my home-baked pizzas, perfectly timed,
with toppings displayed in a series of bowls …
A decade hence, when our daughter weaves
her solitary teen intrigues,
borne further from my mother
with her second-chance family,
will there be things she’d rather never know?
In the bright expanse of our three-bedroom house—
its sweeping deck and soft backyard grass—
I knelt with the pail I’d snuck into the car.
My captives frantically channeling,
fleeing exposure as their habitat shifted,
I sadistically spun the base of the pail,
dreaming of drifting perpetually,
my incorporate parents gazing down at me
sprawled on the lawn, bathed in comfort and love.
Jesse Wolfe’s poetry has appeared in publications including Tower Journal, Good Works Review, Mad Swirl, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. An English professor at California State University, Stanislaus, Wolfe previously served as Faculty Advisor to Penumbra, the campus’s student-run literary and art journal. His scholarly work includes the monograph Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and a forthcoming book on intimacy in contemporary British and American fiction. His debut poetry collection, En Route, was published in 2020 by Cathexis Northwest Press.