I sat in Miss Reynolds’s biology class
the day we all remember what we were doing.
I seem to recollect dissecting a fetal pig;
but perhaps, like Vardaman, I only conflated
physical and metaphysical horror
in one obliterating flash. More likely,
recalling myself as student and young man,
I sat there quietly, watching the others
poke, carve, discover. But at 1:30,
when the intercom coughed without preamble,
and we listened in growing fear to what
resembled a phone conversation broken into
by mistake (ellipses of questioning; sobs;
once, a loud shout) turn slowly into
the focused statement that went through
each of us like a bullet—that he had, in fact,
been murdered—we all sat up and still
then, the radiant pigs forgotten forever.
Who can explain the oracular impulse?
That day, they told us to “vacate the premises”;
no shoulder to cry on in those spare times; no counsel.
The Phys Ed teachers and the coaches, who would pull boys
from the hallway scrum, and slam their backs against
the walls to make a point, stood there sullen, sour,
as we filed past, silent, not even allowed
to use the phones—but then, who would we have called?
There was a strip mall off the high school lot;
we’d meet there at the bakery before class,
the rich kids in a restaurant nearby.
That day we wandered aimlessly along the storefronts;
what I remember most is our stunned silence.
In a television store I saw
a woman clerk who looked the way
I felt. I blurted out, “We’ll never get past this”—
I could feel the fear distort my voice,
as if I knew. She stared at me, as if I knew.
Miss Reynolds had good bones, as the connoisseurs
of beauty say, but wore so much make-up she seemed
a mannequin or doll. Or Lady Elaine Fairchilde,
on Fred Rogers’ TV show, or Punch’s wife, Judy—
an alabaster reach of flesh in which soft
eyes seemed trapped. I’ve often wondered since
if she were the first transsexual I’d known,
her perfect over-lipsticked lips a truth some
lonely man pined for in his own mirror.
I was fifteen: desire needed no abyss.
Even wrinkled old Mrs. Benedict—
even hoary old Mrs. B.—would writhe beneath me
in my bed at night, while I sucked her ancient
leathery nipples, and groaned aloud.
I wasn’t rich or president;
the Beatles had yet to play on Ed Sullivan;
RFK was still alive, like me.
And everywhere I looked desire fused with death.
James Cummins's new book, Still Some Cake, will be out in January, 2012 (Carnegie Mellon).