Genocide

Lying in fetal position, turned to right side, on furthest edge of mattress.
Past midnight, room dark, neighborhood quiet.
Staring through frost-rimmed window at stark moon.

Anti-abortion activists on undergrad campus earlier today,
Decrying murder of potential lives.
If potentiality is the criterion,
Then every adolescent boy in history has committed genocide.
Nightly.
Into wads of Kleenex, old socks, and toilet bowls.

Future entrepreneurs, researchers, concert pianists, presidents,
Pulitzer winners–millions at a time–mercilessly flushed to the sewer
Or tossed
Among the banana peel
And Pop-Tart crust
From this morning’s breakfast.

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Lecture Hall

Attending guest speaker event at the college.
Open to public.
Evening, already dark outside.

Semicircle lecture hall filled
With rosy undergrads,
Pensive graduate students,
Professors in tweed sports coats,
Smattering of retired professionals from town,
And me.

My chair squeaks softly.
Glance at an older student further down my row.
Knitted charcoal sweater, black skinny chinos, stark white Vans hightops.
Hair pale caramel, perfectly tousled.
Tapered sideburns point to smooth angular jaw.
Slate grey eyes meet mine.
Flicker of gentle smile.
I stare down at my worn Nikes.

Lecture ends.
Throw on heavy coat,
Flip up collar,
Stride into frigid night,
Alone.

Soccer

Overcast Sunday morning.
Brisk north wind.
Two boys play soccer in practice field next to deserted high school.
One wears olive green hoodie, red mesh shorts, fluorescent orange cleats.
Friend wears grey beanie cap, black Adidas sweats, blue t-shirt over black long-sleeves.

Early teens, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years:
That tender age when child’s body stretches
Over a lithe, growing frame;
When youthful energy meets budding strength,
Resulting in effortless, tireless athleticism;
When cell phones and Snapchat porn
Vie equally with Legos and hide-and-seek matches;
When dreams begin their inexorable march
Against the onslaught of daily existence.

Hoodie boy scores goal against friend;
Yells in victory, voice cracks;
They switch places.
In ten, fifteen years’ time, where will the boys be?  Who will they be?
Will they remember this cold November morning?
Will they remember to dream?
Do I?
Would that I could talk to my fourteen-year-old self.
Why does it take us a lifetime to figure out how to live?

Walk through leaves

Walking through town today.
Fallen leaves, assorted browns and faded oranges,
Lie scattered along path.
Air is crisp.
Football game at the college.
Some sort of sporting event at the high school.
Dull roar of crowds from both fields.

Streets crowded
With families and young people:
Elementary school girls playing tag on the church lawn;
Adolescent boys, effortlessly slender, strolling languidly in their hormonal pack;
Entitled fraternity bros
In designer skinny jeans
Smoking vapes and laughing
With perfect dentition.

I go unnoticed.
Heaviness descends,
Slows my gait to a shuffle as I walk through leaves.
How badly I long
For a friend,
A lover,
A smile.

Fires of Suburbia

Across the darkening park grounds,
The indistinct hillocks of which glow softly in the purple aestival dusk,
Tens of thousands of fireflies scintillate,
Their caudal luminations streaking upwards from the loamy earth
Like sparks borne aloft from the coals of a smoldering campfire.

We too arose from Wild Horse Green:
Alex and Trevor,
Taylor and Brent and tomboyish Stace.
The hillocks then were castles,
To be defended with stick swords and pine cone grenades;
The fields were African savannahs,
Teeming with housecat lionesses and Old Man McIntyre’s Labrador hyenas;
The elm copse was a military fort and, later, a shelter to adolescent trysts.
During college, the pavilions housed picnics and occasional, accidental, baby showers;
Now, graduation parties and wedding receptions and more baby showers;
Eventually, retirement celebrations and funerals.

The graveled path clicks and rasps underfoot.
Few of the entomic flashes crest the treetops,
For the park employs many wardens:
Bats and nighthawks,
Strategically spun spiderwebs,
Children with cheesecloth nets and Mason jars.

One flare breaks free, blazing—a reverse meteor—into the mauve twilight,
Adding to the starry firmaments
Its fleeting, chartreuse fluorescence.

Rolexes and Kleenexes

Orchard Road, in Singapore.
A bustling urban thoroughfare,
And playground for Ferraris and Bentleys,
With broad, polished promenades
Lined by haute shopping malls, Four Seasons hotels, and orchid topiaries
And frequented by financiers whose cufflinks
Are worth more than the GDPs of most countries.
Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Vertu, and Rolex storefronts dazzle pedestrians
Who perambulate, unhurried by pecuniary concerns, beneath multistory LED billboards.
Detritus, crime, poverty,
And last year’s summer fashions
Are quietly removed by robotic street-sweepers and secret police,
Here,
At the apogee of human civilization.

A rising, twenty-seven-year-old, recent medical graduate from the US,
I am in Singapore to conduct health systems research.
But in the evenings,
I walk this Fifth Avenue of the East,
Gleefully aware that the generous emoluments of my profession will soon grant me
Access to all the superfluous treasures around me.
I moisten the front of my underpants
As yet another sleek Lamborghini growls by.

Outside of an especially lavish galleria fittingly entitled PARAGON, a scene:
A disfigured, octogenarian Singaporean man.
He wears faded green trousers, clunky black boots with a hole over the right great toe,
And a soiled khaki button-up shirt with a crumpled collar.
His left leg hangs shriveled and lame;
The muscle atrophy and limb malformation are pathognomonic sequelae of paralytic polio.
(I’ve never before seen a real-life case.)
He has severe, untreated kyphoscoliosis,
Which leaves his back frozen in a gruesome spiral like a gnarled tree branch
And his torso bent in a permanent obeisance.
Hobbling along the sidewalk with a gait that lists continuously to the port side,
He proffers something to the chic passers-by,
Who either grimace and recoil
Or ignore him entirely.
He turns his face upwards to me.
His cloudy pupils reveal bilateral cataracts; his skin is leathery and deeply wrinkled.
His merchandise consists of little travel-size packages of Kleenex,
$2 each.

I have only $1.30 in spare change
Clinking in the front right pocket of my Armani slacks.
When I offer this sum,
He angrily shakes his head
And points to the cardboard sign indicating the $2 price.
I try to explain that the money is gratis, not intended to procure a product,
But the man continues to refuse.
Mortified to imagine my fellow orchardists witnessing the richly attired doctor
Haggling
With a crippled beggar,
I hastily drop my coins into the red plastic cup that functions as his cash register
And flee.

Safely ensconced in a bistro terrace across the street,
I order supper and glance back towards the gargoyle,
Who is still attempting, unsuccessfully, to make sales.
Suddenly, his poliomyelitic leg catches on an ornate flagstone.
My stomach wrenches
As he stumbles,
Collapsing like a sodden sandbag,
Spilling his tissue packs and precious coins across the path.
He lies there for several minutes.
No one stops
To help him to his feet or to gather the scattered goods.
Laboriously, he and his grotesque frame rise to a crawling position,
And he scrabbles about to collect his various wares,
His rheumatic fingers in constant danger of being crushed
By handcrafted Italian loafers.

The organic, fair-trade falafel wrap and kale salad remain untouched on my plate;
Shame, indignation, and despair prove a heavy enough repast.
I feel nauseated.
An elegantly arranged orchid bed next to my table
Receives my vomitus.
This is the magnum opus of humanity:
Bilious stomach acid on one’s lips,
Which no Kleenex tissue
Or silk handkerchief
Can ever wipe clean.

Do Fish Sneeze?

I

Students (incredulous): Wait, are you, like, a PhD doctor or a real doctor?
Me (amused): The latter, though some of my grad school colleagues might object to the distinction.
Students (confused): Huh?
Me: I’m a real doctor.
Students (suspicious): No offense, but why is a doctor subbing high school chemistry?
Me (cagily): I have a gap year before starting my residency and figure sub teaching is a nice way to give back to the community.
(Truth: I took time off to ‘find myself’ and, after finding myself drunk, unemployed, and penniless in Costa Rica, found myself living at my parents’ house and substitute teaching in the school district I had attended as a youth.)
Me (redirecting): And on that note, could everyone get out the worksheet that Mr. McKinley gave you yesterday?
Female student (cheerleader, archetypal Valley Girl, annoyed): Um, Mr. ‘Doctor’ sir, we don’t actually work in this class.
Me: You do today. Now, who can tell me about ionic bonding?

II

Unknown teacher: Hi! Are you covering Mrs. Finny, today? I’m Ms. Ellmon, just next door, English lit.
Me: Pleased to meet you. This is my first time at the middle school; I usually do high school sciences.
Ms. Ellmon: Oh, well, welcome! The kids are great. 8th graders, ya know? Enthusiastic, but too cool to show it.  They’ll turn anything you say into a ’69’ joke.
Me: Do they even know what that means?
Ms. Ellmon: A couple we found under the gym bleachers last week certainly did. Anyways, watch out in fourth period for a kid named Wayne Fleeton. Crazy. Already suspended twice this year—robbing the soda machines and setting a desk on fire.
Random student (enters classroom): Whoa, sub day! Hi, Ms. E. Did you warn him about Wacko Wayne?
Ms. Ellmon: Terrence! No name-calling…but, yes, I did.
Terrence (appraising me): You don’t look like a softie. Maybe Wacko won’t kill you on the spot.
(Truth: Mr. Fleeton is a quiet, well-mannered, intelligent lad who is criminally bored in a watered-down public education system filled with ‘phonies,’ to use his own Salinger reference.)

III

Me: …and that covers most of what Ms. Hammel wanted you to know on forensic odontology. Remember, for the quiz tomorrow, focus mostly on the slides about tooth development and dental records. Any questions?
Sophomore male (jet black hair, Metallica t-shirt, urban camo pants, bright pink boots, earnest mien): Is it true that zombies can tear out a person’s windpipe with just their teeth?
Male chorus: Yeah, is it? It was on ‘Walking Dead’ last night.
Me: Hmm, mechanisms of injury during assaults by the undead. Excellent question. If I remember my neck anatomy correctly, the trachea—or ‘windpipe,’ as you call it—has three major cartilaginous anchor points, the most superior of which is often…

IV

Intercom: Attention teachers. We are under lockdown. Secure your classrooms.
Me: What the hell?!
Students (7th graders, tittering): Did you hear that? So cool! He said ‘hell.’ I like this sub.
Me: Guys and gals, is this a drill? The office didn’t mention it.
Students: They never tell us nothin’.
Me: Watch the double negatives. Ok, we’ll treat it as legit. Lights off. Close the door. Everyone into that corner, away from the windows. Now!
Students (alarmed, yelling): What if there’s really a shooter? I don’t want to die. So cool! Our Father, who art in heaven… Is the door locked? My brother said the glass is bulletproof. Your brother’s full of shit. Does anyone have a phone charger?
Me: Shut it! Sit down. No one talks, got it?
Intercom: Attention teachers. We are under lockdown. Secure your classrooms.
Students (whimpering): Oh god, oh god, oh god.
Young boy (sandy-haired, class clown, suddenly stands): Guys! What are we worried about? If anyone gets shot, we’ve got the Doctor Sub!
Classmates (pausing, considering): Hey…that’s right. We’ve got Doctor Sub!
Me: Shhh, be quiet. I can’t do much if the gunman kills us all.
(Truth: I can’t do much, regardless. The only gunshot wounds I saw in medical school were in PowerPoint slides during trauma lectures.)
Principal (several minutes later, opens classroom door): Excellent! Looks like you’ve got things under control. In case the office didn’t tell you, we’re having a lockdown drill this morning.

V

Me (taking attendance): Wow, where is everyone today?
Students: There’s track, tennis, and swim meets all week. Football team’s on a training-camp field trip. Baseball’s getting ready for tomorrow’s pep assembly. Cheer and pom are at nationals.
Me: Odd, I thought sports were extracurricular activities.

VI

Substitute teachers, ephemeral creatures,
Filling in quickly when staffers fall sickly.
Oftentimes pressed, though not knowing squat-diddles,
Answer they must life’s important big riddles:
Is it possible to break a penis?
Why is smoking so heinous?
What exactly does a spleen do?
Coffee makes you short. Is that true?
How did the Earth’s rotation start?
When should you listen to your heart?
Can ice freeze?
Do fish sneeze?