Hook 1920 1440 Troy Varvel

My father always gave fighters the first punch.

And he would take it, the fist to his nose,
before pinning them to the ground. He had to be pried

off the pummel each time like a pit bull.

Three guys, six arms, one double nelson, my father said
of the strength required to pry him off anyone

who fought him. He told me this while we fished
the day after Brandon bent over me, split open

my cheekbone with a cafeteria tray. The less I spoke
the madder he got. F-f-f-reak, Brandon said.

Fight back, my father told me, breathing deep,
left nostril flaring. The one thinner and concaved.

I wanted to be like him, a bulk chest that filled shirts,
a nose that showed I was stouthearted and tough.

I spent afternoons in the school gym working out
until I lay on the cold tile of shower stalls, hot water

stinging my reddening skin, washing away
metal splinters scarring my hands and fingers

still curled hours after I finished my sets.
Still, my body refused to grow, shirts hanging

off my frame like unhinged fishing line.
I’m trying, I said to my father’s hulking frame.

He stared at me, his beaten nose gargling back
phlegm, left nostril flexing for air.

Then, he pulled a fat grub from the bait cup.
Slid it onto the hook. Cast it out to the lake.

I walked to the other side of the bend
and knelt at the edge of the water,

ripples wrinkling my reflection,
my shiner shadowed and shimmering.

Looking at it no one would know I lost my fight.
And I realized my father could have lost his fights

all those years ago and I would never know.
His mangled nose said he was a man who wasn’t afraid

to fight and only men washed in this world’s dark water
walked out of the tide, ready to brawl.

Header photograph © Vesna Gajisin.

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