Gray Ghost —Boyer Rickel
Sometimes a young man—though in college, they were practically boys, I thought—would catch, then hold my glance.
As one catches an object gently tossed, cupping it in both hands.
He’d turn to display himself, his eyes never leaving mine as he lightly lathered his chest.
This, in the open Rec Center showers when in my early fifties.
Can this be happening? I’d think.
What do I do?
If his cock began to harden, mine would jump to attention and I’d run for my towel.
For so many years, says the old woman in the poem, the world looked at me and its mouth watered.
It bewilders me he doesn’t see me, she says of the boy who helps with her groceries.
What’s Jarrell talking about? I wondered in my 20s.
There was another type.
One, a tall blond mesomorph with a bright green towel, wore shower slippers.
Wide-shouldered, lean but muscled, a swimmer perhaps; a cock of porn star dimension.
He’d stand for extended periods, his back to the wall, turning side to side as water sheeted his body.
Eyes closed or looking nowhere, as if alone.
Though no one failed to register this god among the mortals.
Beauty is always the exception, a critic reminds us.
Another scrubbed his limbs and torso in long slow strokes with a shower glove.
Taut proportions, a gymnast’s definition.
Dark skin, glossy smooth, even around his genitals.
He’d hang a mesh pouch from the showerhead, choosing from a collection of toiletries throughout his leisurely bathing ritual.
My favorite, he was a regular.
When he’d notice my presence, he’d turn to face me as he washed, his focus in the middle distance, or maybe inward.
I think it’s fair to say we both enjoyed this.
Gay? I wondered.
How come he never becomes aroused?
Dirty old man, we’d whisper, laughing.
Some older guy staring with too much interest at a girl sunbathing.
Idling on a bench, his legs outstretched in the shade of a mulberry.
Or at the chain-link fence surrounding the pool, his fingers hanging on the wires like a monkey begging admission to the cage instead of wanting out.
Tempe Beach, Olympic-size, with a high board and a kiddie pool.
Where parents felt safe dropping their children on summer days in the ‘50s.
All the families knew each other; the town agora, a friend called it in a memoir.
In the open changing room, with walls of dark volcanic rock and a concrete floor, I trembled, slipping into my trunks, craving invisibility.
Hairless where hair mattered.
Shamed by the giant genitals of grown men—and my need to look.
As a child, even when alone, I sensed that I was watched.
In the bath, reading on the living room rug, riding my bike to the park.
I was always under observation.
It was a comfort.
It felt as if my mother, who would glance from the kitchen window as I played outside—as if she, at that window, followed, no matter where I went.
And then I realized—at 8? at 9?—I was the watcher.
As if I were doubled.
Someone inside a body, and out.
As if, simultaneously behind the lens and acting in the leading role, I lived in a movie.
Each action—lifting a milk glass at breakfast, or digging a hole in the yard to bury a bird—a kind of performance for the camera.
I wanted to get it right.
Enjoy your workout, Sir, the young man, handing me a towel, had said.
Are you speaking to me? I nearly blurted.
Sir, from the candy striper, offering water in the hospital lobby.
Your change, Sir, said the bookstore clerk.
Each iteration the hot spark of a static shock, I’d startle.
When did I cross the line? I wondered.
You’re joking, I said to Morgan, one day in his hospital room.
The Gray Ghost, he’d called me, reaching to muss my gelled spikey hair.
I looked in the bathroom mirror, stunned.
It wasn’t that they didn’t see me; nearly sixty, I couldn’t see myself.
Bodies are real, I read in an essay.
Nearly 30 years separated ours.
Once youth passes, the writer continues, we carry our bodies around with a growing sense of estrangement.
After we made love, even when Morgan’s eyes were closed, I felt the perfect form of his body assessing mine.
Its slack proportions, its folds and moles.
I’d look away as a kind of vanishing.
Like a child who thinks he can’t be seen when he covers his eyes.
The smell of burnt flesh: a tech cauterizes the skin’s bleeding edges.
Belly down, chin on arms crossed on the pillow at the top of the bed, I count the pale linoleum floor tiles.
Cut six—Be the last, I pray—to remove a recurrent basal cell cancer from my back.
From above, I observe my outstretched form.
And the wound, enlarged now from cut two (the size of a quarter) to the mouth of a Dixie cup.
In times of trauma, I am doubled still.
Home from the hospital the morning Morgan died, I paced, howling till my throat was scraped of sound.
No one—no dog even, buried six months before—to disturb.
Back and forth I walked in a tracking shot the length of the house.
Is this real? Is this how I feel? I wondered in silent voiceover.
Like Maypoles, but these were showers in the high school gym.
Around each, three or four of us washed after tennis practice.
Jesus, Cahill would exclaim, I’ll bet the pussy just begs for it.
He couldn’t get over the size of Wilson’s cock.
I tried to disappear, eyes to the floor, marching from locker to shower and back.
How do you find that thing, with a microscope? Cahill would tease one of us others.
See nothing, think nothing, I’d chant in my mind.
Desire disarranging space.
Conspiring to place the other boys’ bodies in my path.
My cock stiffening beneath the towel.
Have you met anyone? Joan asked.
Three years since Morgan’s death.
I’m ruined, I said. I find only younger men attractive.
Joan’s intake of breath; in disapproval, I assumed.
Except Richie, I added. (Her husband—we’ve all been close since college.)
World Class; Abercrombie and Fitch; Hottie; Cutie; Cute Enough; Okay; and Busted (from Morgan’s lexicon, rare birds since I’d entered my sixties).
The types I locate around the weight room as I rest between repetitions.
Whose eyes, no matter the category, unfailingly brush past me in the locker room.
When did I become invisible? I wonder.
He Crushes Me
He crushes me.
Shirtless, in tight blue briefs, the expanse of chest like coffeed cream.
A friend’s twenty-something son.
Does he know he crushes me, standing half in, half out of a room down the hall?
His body bisected by the door frame: one leg, one nipple.
Idly, as he asks a question, he loops a thumb under the waistband of his blue cotton briefs.
Tugs it down an inch or two.
A nuance; a murmur.
Two shirtless youths, side by side, jeaned legs spread, face the camera.
Their tanned chests flawless planes.
Except for the nipples and navels, points of two inverted isosceles triangles.
Behind them, a green fan, acres of cotton plants in rows.
Beardless versions of DiVinci’s Vatruvian Man, their arms outstretched, they hold a three-foot plant in the air between them.
(Their summer job: to walk the rows pulling hybrids; seeds from fields cleared of them can be sold.)
Did I know when in my twenties, slim and smooth, that I could crush?
I knew the friend beside me could.
I might toss sleepless half the night before released from that weight.
The boy, twelve, looks away.
To the shoreline, where children kick through low waves.
His father has unbuttoned and removed his shirt.
What the boy sees is not the play of children; his mind has filled with the minor horror of his father’s skin.
A scattering of mud specks on a white sheet.
A new fear to add to his collection.
I run my fingers down the center of Morgan’s chest.
I follow upward with my tongue from the navel.
Don’t, he says.
But your skin—it’s so smooth, I say.
It’s not. It’s the salt, he says.
That’s how they can tell a baby might have CF. They lick its skin.
I test his inner thigh. (Do I detect a grain?)
Don’t, he says.
One morning, as I lay gasping in climax, he ran his fingers lightly back and forth above my nipples.
Tiny trails of electric pleasure.
I test the perineum.
His breath quickens.
Four buzzed blond heads atop dumpling bodies.
In identical white short-sleeve shirts and tan, belted slacks.
Like stacking dolls, I think.
Three boys and their father in the photo by the floor-length mirror.
Sixty-three and doughy in black briefs, I avoid the reflected body.
As I do every six months.
How about here, here and here, says my ever-upbeat dermatologist.
She points to three of the keratoses arrayed on my chest.
So many to choose from, I think, glancing reluctantly.
The mirror lit as brightly as her voice.
Can skin ever look other than dead, so exposed?
I’ll freeze two with nitrogen, then numb around this one and scrape it off.
I nod, though I’m looking at her belly.
Yes, she laughs, and it’s another boy!
Weeping. Her leg is weeping, the nurse says.
She lifts the limb, swollen double, by the heel with one hand, unwraps the wet gauze with the other.
The leg of a giant extends from my white-haired mother.
The skin, almost a century old, darkened and glossy with translucence.
Thawing meat is said to weep, I think.
My mother rarely weeps, but moans, and shakes her head, as if disbelieving.
Her fall so sudden, It must have been a small stroke, she insists.
Make yourself useful, she only half-jokes.
So I raise the leg again, cradle it side to side.
For circulation; to engage the hip joint.
Against my skin, the surface cool, smooth from the pressure of fluid.
The weight the weight of something detached, inanimate.
He moans—from pleasure.
The warmth and texture of the wet cloth across his back.
Keep going, he says.
The warmth of a rain that makes a line drawing of the thinning hair on his scalp.
My father is seated on a plastic lawn chair in the shower.
His curled back hunched double over legs weakened by stroke.
Forty, I stand naked beside him.
Tugging lightly at his shoulder, Sit up now, I say.
On back and chest, moles, skin tags, countless keratoses, a few bigger than nickels, big enough to feel through the washcloth.
I run the cloth above, then beneath the breasts, over the belly; re-soap and squat to wash my father’s genitals.
Why is this so easy? I wonder.
As if bathing him were no more extraordinary than preparing a meal?
Get a hot tub, and I’ll move in with you, he teases.
When he steps from the hotel shower, his chest and back glow red from water so hot, I tell him I could never step in.
That’s the plan, he says with a grin.
On my way, he texts, my signal to add pots of boiling water to the tub.
Timed so he’ll arrive when at its peak.
Sinking through the skin, heat to the point of pain.
Immersion in sensation.
A form of forgetting: the constant struggle of taking breath through clogged lungs.
Pink from the bath, outspread on the bed, cock erect.
My lips on his thigh would sense fever if I didn’t know better.
The icy room, the high metal table.
I unzipped the bag from crown to chest.
(Do I remember this right?)
(Could they have unfolded his crumpled body, laid him on his back?)
The icy room, the high metal table.
My hand on my father’s shoulder, his chest.
(This I’m sure of—my need to touch him, before he disappeared into ashes.)
A surprising hardness, suggesting density, weight.
When dead, I thought, we call it flesh.
Or, if alive, when desire transforms to lust.
("Gray Ghost" and "He Crushes Me" are from Tempo Rubato, a chapbook published by Green Linden Press.)