Whatever it was
that made the Reverend
Barker stoop that way,
it meant no matter
how much he screamed
at my friend Nathaniel
for being late, for not
raking the leaves,
or for raking the goddamned
leaves the wrong goddamned way,
he could only ever scowl
at the tops of his wingtip shoes
or at the cuffs of the black wool suit
he always seemed to be wearing
when he’d thunder into the yard,
or down the stairs, or through
the little speaker of some payphone
we huddled around, God
damnit Nathaniel, I told you,
I told you, Nathaniel, Goddamnit!
his fury repeating
so precisely it became a joke
we hollered through the halls,
changing my friend’s name
to Goddamnit Nathaniel, as in
Where the hell’s Goddamnit Nathaniel?
I told you, Goddamnit, to get me a Coke!
which was stupid but funny at fourteen,
and still just as stupidly funny at nineteen,
when we’d yell across a bonfire
Don’t bogart that joint Goddamnit
Nathaniel, Haven’t I told you
to pass the bong when you’re through?
which is still funny to me even now—
even though I look back and see,
as I could not have seen then,
that the Reverend Barker
only stooped that way
because cancer was eating his liver,
and because with each day
it became both more urgent
and more unlikely
that he would ever manage to say
whatever it was he meant
when he’d sit at the kitchen table,
or grip the black phone,
or stand in the darkened driveway
after we’d all gone home,
staring at the ground and saying nothing
to his sweet, beloved boy
Nathaniel, listen to me.
Goddamnit Nathaniel, now listen.
Nathaniel first appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2006.