Lacing Into

May 24, 2013

He twines black ribbon around his wrist. With a yellow strand, I mirror him. Weave slips around the thumb and passes through open channels between fingers stretched wide. Twice around and across, the dressing lays itself over the bumps of knuckles where once we counted days of the month. He is finished with both of his before I am even halfway around the first. His fingers turn my hand and graze my left palm just before mummifying its living flesh beneath warped satin dressing.

Continue reading “Lacing Into”

Boxing Day

Hand Wraps

His daughter sits on the basement floor and colors, if what she’s doing can be called that. The enchanted forest book was among yesterday’s Christmas loot. Green ink creeps in swirls as she embellishes the narrow space between the veins of a leaf. She barely registers the music screeching past as it thuds thuds in time to leather gloves pounding a heavy bag.

This is his three minutes. I squeeze into a corner of the blue mat on my back. My clasped hands are wrapped in ragged strips of fabric and swipe at the air as I curl into crunches, press towards 50 and then surge past. Close to my exposed flank – too close – he jolts and slips and ducks. The weight falls off as beads of sweat hit the mat. Shadows of sinew cut into his shoulders. Ropes braid his neck. He dances with power thrumming along every string.

The earlier chapters are carved into flesh hidden beneath skin. The tongue is lost but the meter of those verses is translation enough. Ghosts jammed their grappling hooks into his jaw and temple and laid their weight against the cables. Claw over claw, they tried to draw him with stubborn resolve down into that pit where they boil the tar and hemlock, where they chant their cold spells. Mother Gothel learned her arts there before planting her garden. You may know the place. The more you lean in, the stronger the scent of oblivion.

On the floor near my shoulder, his daughter chooses a darker green for the branches. “They’re supposed to be brown,” she says, “Like a tree. But I want them to be vines.” She paints the fine strands like jungle dusk.

He keeps his fists in his line of sight. I see how he grows muscle from sources both clear and buried. He laces up gloves and running shoes, of course. He pounds it out on canvas and asphalt. Yet under that, a core strength comes from a deeper exertion. He strains up, always up, forcing momentum to reverse against the compulsion to surrender, resisting that sweet temptation of relief.

To those whose bodies are matched to the pull of gravity, this effort is incomprehensible. But look closely and you’ll see the corrugated skin and voice, you’ll see the cuts like scars across the force field he emits from the moment he wakes even before the sun. You’ll see how his light’s flickering tempo jabs back against the black box of night.

He invites you into that basement where he does battle with an appetite for extinction. He powers up some deeper engine and keeps it running, makes it growl against the silent pulleys they use to draw him in. He keeps it humming, makes it fire, even when the key has gone missing, he pushes it from the hill and pops the clutch. He finds a way to spark it to life no matter how thick the rime obscuring a barely remembered green.

His daughter switches out jade for fern and loops spirals along the wings of a bird. She looks up, pausing to watch her dad’s fists fly against the bag. “Can I have a turn?” She asks.

“Sure, babygirl,” he pants. “Let’s get your hands wrapped after this round.” He smiles in her direction before turning a scowl back on the bag. It sways, creaking its displeasure at the assault.

I bend sideways to force my obliques into submission. I face him now, watch his bare feet shuffle over the mat as he circles his unyielding crimson opponent. He is strength here, he is courage. He is also their opposite. He is the admission of weakness, the acknowledgment of fear. He knows what is at stake. He’s felt the reeling sensation that comes when every treasure escapes his grip. He’s seen how close a man can come to failing to save the most precious.

He chooses fierce. Both coach and fighter, he splashes cold water in his own face and wakes the weary champion. He plays as if brave knight-errant, as if he was born for this, because he’s covered enough earth to know he is not. None of us is, and anyone who believes otherwise is Don Quixote, all fool and bluster.

This is why I love the softness there under the corners he’s trying to chisel back into his armor. Those tender places are just as welcome in my grip as the cut and thunder. Plenty of men are blind to their weak seams and show only scars that come with a good story. They have not been tested yet. They have not broken. It is always only a matter of time.

I want to see bulges and the crude patch job. These are the places where he stuffed whatever gauze and rotgut he could find. These jagged seams map his crossing, and they show him which way to turn if he finds himself back on that familiar route. The stitches hold the reminder of what happens when he loses his footing, when he almost falls so far he can’t climb back. I want to know he’s visited that place. Even if he stayed long enough in that pit to become a citizen, he chose to give up its Neverland promises and rise back up to life.

Evidence of that ascent is written into him. I see the callouses on his hands and know that he keeps them in shape both to hold his domain among the living and to keep climbing, even now, even when he could be justified in saying this is far enough.

The bell clangs, end of round. I stand. He lets out a breath and taps my hip before ripping off his gloves. I pull the straps tight on mine, bouncing on the balls of my feet as I wait for the seconds to tick down to my beginning. He touches his daughter on the head. She lifts her eyes from the twining vines and tangled leaves now waking to lushness across the page. “Let’s get your wraps on,” he says. “You’re up next.”

 

 

Every Glove

Diana with Dog

Each time I think I’ve made contact
sleep ducks away. I stumble
back to night,
dazed. Bedstand, light
Rise Up Singing, 1992 edition
my name a blue wave
from an eager hand
across an arena packed
with years. The water
stained pages crack open
to Men, a section all its own:
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
and Hard Lovin’ Loser
and the one I tucked against me as His
pocketful of mumbles
such are promises. I sing
as I would for my restless son, sway
like the heavy bag
matching its pace, this rhythm I know
by heart. When I left
my home and my family
I was no more than a boy, now
I lay wide the unwrapped
knuckle, throat
bare as palms
I swing
to meet the solid
object I thought
on loan from some
other, and fall
through to a core
so supple and familiar
it is certainly my own and
it will certainly
burst. Momentum
splits a seam, tears
off the skin,
and as with all things
through
is the only way
out. Where I land, stars
spill across sky
in this clearing
stands a boxer and a fighter
by her trade
and she carries the reminders
of every glove that laid her down
or cut her til she cries out
all the anger and the shame
I am leaving I am leaving
and the fighter
rises
up
here, singing
her own name
 

Licking

He dips, smacks
fist against bag,
growl and clash,
Joe Strummer splits
seams, drop
ceiling shrieks
in protest against
shuddering brace and groaning
beam, crimson everlast
swinging, spine
hunched, gloves up, slits
for eyes, he spits
as bristling
lips clench
jagged like razors
ragged like teeth
wet with stink
slick heat
bell at 3
he scowls, steps
back, steeps
in his own steam, salt
licking his neck
 

Kid Gloves

From the steamer trunk where we keep the dress-up clothes I unfold a pair of ivory gloves. Tiny rhinestones dust the wrist and blanket stitches trace the bones. I slip them on. Their buttery grip hugs my skin. I can barely bend into a fist, but that’s not what they were for.

Her voice flits in from somewhere back then. Little golden-haired me, cracking my knuckles. She, fretting.

“Oh, sugar. Don’t do that. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older.”

How is a kid supposed to consider her own hands? Her own faraway adulthood? The mind, kinder than the most well-meaning loved ones, guards against premature knowledge of time’s merciless work.

The threat’s vague consequence quavered at the edge of focus and refused to sharpen. Would my busted flesh swell taut and hot? Maybe, but I couldn’t stop. I took my knuckles into the bedroom, the shower. Shame pricked, echoing every snap. There I would be at 40, I imagined, carrying regret like a scar, tucking once-were-lovely hands into kidskin shrouds.

In the trunk now is her scent. Maybe it’s the scent of her house? By the time I knew her, one was the other. Traces of it slip loose of language. Musty? Floral? Sort of like old dollar bills. And bath powder. It’s nicer than it sounds.

I pull off the gloves and begin to look through things my little boy has ignored. A few pieces of coral costume jewelry. Pins with cloisonné baubles dangling from gold chains. I unfold a floor-length embroidered Chinese robe. It is far too big for my bird-boned grandmother, but who in the world would have worn it? I dig deeper. Tucked into the corner of the trunk is the aquamarine pillbox hat, all metallic threads and glittery flourish. Once she had a dress that matched. I’ve seen the faded photos but they don’t begin to capture the gleam. This getup belongs in a Mardi Gras parade.

At the bottom of the trunk rests a folded, floral something-or-other. Table linen? An apron? I packed it all in a rush before the house and all its contents were sold at auction. I shake the fabric out to its full length and marvel at this piece of her.

I had forgotten how bright my grandmother’s taste. Big rust and teal flowers leap across a creamy field. It is a sundress, darted and tailored while also falling out in soft flare. The whole creation is edged in a turquoise border that rises into ribbon-thin straps. It is a masterpiece. I trace the tiny seams.

We say, “I wish I’d known them when they were young.” Maybe if we don’t meet them as children, it’s a failure of imagination, not timing. Every one of us is still a kid, still climbing the tree, still ducking from a blow, still burning for that first kiss. I knew her as a girl without even realizing it. I was busy looking at my hands picturing them old. She was looking at hers, remembering.

She danced in this dress. She danced even when she couldn’t anymore. I try to imagine her in it, her burgundy curls kissing her bare neck and shoulders. That image, too, refuses to sharpen into view.

I do know this: before children, my grandmother was a petite hourglass of a thing. My barrel chest would have swallowed hers whole with room left for dessert, yet her cup size was at least three times mine. Even before she began to shrink, the top of her head barely grazed my chin. She always wore lipstick.

I hug the dress close, carry it to my room, and shed my jeans.

With deep breath and a little tug, the zipper – did it really just do that? – makes it over my ribs. Fabric hugs me in a pinch at the waist. The chest gapes open enough to stow a sack of flour but the rest of it slips like gift wrap around my frame.

I couldn’t be shaped more differently than the woman who first inhabited this dress, but it stands a chance. I wish I could give her a fashion show. The last of those was nearly twelve years ago and the other way around. I sat in her bedroom and helped her try on the blue chiffon she chose to wear into the ground. How is a young woman supposed to consider death? The mind, still kinder than truth, continues to stand to stand guard. We laughed together on her bed. It never occurred to me that it would be the last visit, even as we chose her pallbearers and picked out her silk slip.

On that trip to Oklahoma as in all the others, I ran out into the early morning, charging up past farms to Cemetery Hill and back down around the 4-mile loop. Flushed and stinking, I stretched in her living room while she ate breakfast in her robe. “You’re such a strong girl,” she said, patting my thigh with a powder-milk hand. I felt immense next to her. Bovine. But there in her own body, she was giddy with the memory of motion. “I used to touch the floor,” she said. “With my palms flat like this.” She tried it, right there in her robe, giggling as she dangled her tiny fingers and reached.

The ghost girl twirled into view. Her hips swayed. I couldn’t even see her right there next to me, fanning out those feathery hands. She was still a dancer, still turning one pirouette after another into breathless almost-flight.

I understand now because I feel it too.

Not in the dress which I peel off and hang in my closet. No, her pretty was – is – so much finer than mine.

No, I feel it here in this other now.

Now, when I go down to the basement. When I wrap my hands three times at the wrist then up through the fingers, locking the thumb. The music is cranked to a click shy of distortion. Megadeth. Nirvana. Anything that drives. No sleep till – pow pow – Brooklyn! I watch the man and lick my lips.

Then the bell.

Then.

I use my teeth and rip the Velcro tighter on the glove. My hands tighten to fists.

I am up, one – one two. Remembering the rhythm but also slipping outside of it. The first time we went three rounds. Then four. Then, once, half drunk on Shock Top, we cussed and slogged through five rounds. I know retreat is not an option so I give in. The weak left, the strange feet, the wobble. Then, the grrr, the slam, squatting for the upper cut, shuffling for the left hook that always feels like a wet noodle compared to the right. There is a clock but no time. The only event is this shuffle, this tuck, this goddamned bag, this blow. Except that it’s not true, at least not yet, because when the exertion is so total, I’m counting every beat. When he grunts, 30 more seconds, come on, I think fuck. Then haul back, hands up, wham.

When I forget to keep the curl tight inside the glove, all the padding in the world doesn’t help. I feel the crack and the moment of wrong impact a split second too late. The skin slips. There is no rest. The heavy bag lets you know if you’ve slacked or misjudged. It smirks while you wobble. So, I zero in. I hunker down, square myself, and pound.


In the morning, my body groans in the shower then winces its way into trousers. Knuckles burn. On my way out the door, I double back, remembering to take the dress. On my lunch hour, a co-worker sends me past all the bargain cleaners with on-site tailors to the custom seamstress one neighborhood over, telling me that suffering the cost is better than regretting a discount.

The bell chimes as I open the door. From between poofs of sheathed tuille, a little woman pops out and scowls. “What you need done?” She is built like my grandmother but does not smile as much. She scoots me into a dressing room. “You put it on,” she points and disappears.

Under the fluorescent lights, I strip down. Five panes of glass stretch to the ceiling, each claiming a unique angle. I step to a platform scuffed with the eager feet of hundreds of brides-to-be. I drop the dress over my bare shoulders and freeze. Then I flex, unsure if I’m seeing something real. Whose back is this? The sea-blue ribbon tips over and the zipper gapes. Muscle rises there, rippling, coarsely cut. The scapulae, biting against ridges like the twisted braid of a banyan tree. Can this be me?

The tailor returns with a hedgehog of glinting quills strapped to her forearm. Gathering and folding, she tut-tuts. The gap is huge at my schoolboy chest but she does her best. “Not easy,” she says. “Have to cut. See? Here and here. Line is. . . tricky.” The dress is so many shapes in two different fabrics. “No one make like this now,” she says. “Nice,” she says. She bends to the crenellated hem at the foot where the inverted castle wall notches up into the field of the skirt. “Take long time to make.”

She orders me to reach for the ceiling. My arms shriek. Last night’s 5 ½ rounds were a rout. I made all the moves but the bag did all the damage. The tailor steps back and assesses. The skirt flares from my waist and kisses my calves. I twine my hands together in the air. The scrape there, the purple place between the pinky and the ring finger of my right hand, barks. I’d let my grip fall open at the wrong moment and I’m paying today. On a sweaty strip of webbing now limp in the bottom of a laundry bag, a bit of my flesh festers.

“You have to wear bra,” she says, grabbing at my breast and getting a fistful of the impossible darts. “Still too big here. Okay?”

“Yes,” I say. “Okay.”

She leaves and I straighten the straps, catching sight of my hands. Brown from the sun. Bruised. They are dry, too. I’ve never had the discipline for the Pond’s my grandmother applied religiously. Here, a sheath of rattlesnake diamonds. I turn in a slow circle. The skirt whispers open

Oh, sugar. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older

and I stretch my bruised hands wide.
 

Featherweight

To the woman who has signed up for a single-parent dating seminar because she wants to figure out how to get things right, he says, “It’s like boxing.” Then he laughs and apologizes. To a runner, the metaphor is endurance. To a world traveler, maps and foreign tongues. To a boxer? The next match.

“Sure, hear them out,” he says. “You can get good advice from everywhere. ‘Do it this way. Try that.’All of it probably works.” He halfway smiles. “My trainer teaches me things.” Here, he hunches his shoulders just a fraction and brings his loose fists up to shade his face. “’Use your legs like this, lean like this.’” He shrugs and his hands open like wings. One alights on his thigh hidden just below the table. “My legs might be just a little bit longer. Maybe I have to lean differently. I need to find that out.” Now he lifts his palms and placates an invisible onslaught. Of fists? Advice? Skepticism? “You just have to find your own balance. Your balance.”

The others at the table pause and let this settle in. The only Right is boxing from within your own skin. Continue reading “Featherweight”