by Christoper Bursk
It was another sort of teasing
than Jerome was used to, the family
telling stories on each other,
Mr. H. once punctuating his joke with an accidental
fist in the mashed potatoes,
everyone howling, Nicky piping up, They ought to make
a TV show about us, Nine is Enough, taking care
as most seven-year-olds wouldn't,
to include Jerome, not yet a Hutchins,
only a month with them,
this family so obviously delighted at being
itself. At times like this
Jerome pushed back his chair, left the room, the house,
shutting the door quietly.
When he returned, no one said anything
but they'd brush against him,
nudge him companionably
as a flock might take back one of its strays.
Only the cat stood outside his door,
the old Siamese questioning him.
Some days seemed too right,
whole afternoons teaching Nicky to bunt
or helping the twins mow the lawn
or lying in the grass after a game of catch
with a girl. They'd tossed the ball back and forth
till he didn't need to show off
and was able to
trap the ball behind his back, flick it
out of his web, whip it home.
Jerome was wary of Mrs. H.,
wanted to win her over.
He and she spent hours talking over stains
for the porch. It was his idea
the family go away as they'd planned;
he be allowed to stay home, finish the job
he'd been entrusted with.
He was proud to have work he couldn't put aside,
to be in charge of seeing
that each coat went on perfectly.
And at first it did.
As soon as the family car had pulled away
Jerome was up on the ladder,
taking care to keep the brush flowing with the grain
even in between beams. He wanted no evidence
not a single mark
where one stroke left off and another began,
where he'd had to rest. By nightfall
he had rigged up light.
His knuckles, his arms, his forehead were stained.
He began noticing streaks
where the light had tricked him,
his fingers had slipped
blotching all his past work.
He had ruined everything.
It was as if he'd fallen off the only boat
that had come to rescue him
and now his efforts to swim back to it
only pushed it further away.
Why did the family cat choose that moment
to push against his legs,
the Siamese crying at his feet?
He hadn't intended to kick her
but when it wouldn't stop accusing him,
when she kept coming back after he'd push her away,
he seized her by the neck.
Why hadn't the dumb thing
left him alone? After he'd buried her
under leaves, he went on
walking. Deep into the woods behind the house.
He hiked until he couldn't see
and still he put down his feet
into the darkness.
He watched now
the boat drift completely out of reach.