By Charles Harper Webb
Featured Art: The Miser by James McNeill Whistler
The Arabs who invented Algebra can’t have known
Miss Seitz would teach it, any more than Einstein
knew he’d be the Father of Catastrophe.
The Miss which prefaced her name proudly
(would no man have her, or would she have no man?)
brought to mind Mistake, Mischance, Misshapen,
Miserable, Misfit, Missing Link, Lord of Misrule.
Only the fiends who stoked the furnace of 8th grade
were glad to see her hunched at her desk, gutting papers
with her bloody pen. X’s identity was nothing to her,
next to perfect headings: student’s name, class name
and period, her name, and the date in that order,
starting exactly three lines from the top, margins
one inch, paper creased in perfect thirds (no
crooked ends, no refolding), or she would fix you
in a basilisk stare, shove back your work, and snarl,
in a decades-past-post-menopausal croak, Don’ Like.
What math we gained is gone now as Del Shannon’s
“Runaway”—as Billy Tilly’s spit-shined shoes,
and the blade Ray Montez applied to my throat, hissing,
“Gimme all your cash, you little fruit”—gone
as the mush-burgers Ms Hairnet slapped
on our lunchroom trays—as Teddy Jones,
falling between the granite blocks at Freeport Jetty,
crawling back up, extending the glass stump
of his new Pfleuger rod, groaning, Don’ like.
The words remain: an anthem as I near Miss Seitz’s age.
Hip hop and bottles crashing next door after 9:00—
the candidates, woman and man—
the way my clothes fit, and the barber cuts my “hair”—
hot salad and cold soup served by a pretty waitress
who thinks my (old) manhood’s a dirty joke—
Time’s scaly hand, Xing, in red, my dwindling days . . .
Charles Harper Webb‘s latest collection of poems, Sidebend World, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2018. His novel Ursula Lake has been accepted for publication by Red Hen Press. Recipient of grants from the Whiting and Guggenheim foundations, Webb teaches Creative Writing at California State University, Long Beach.
Originally published in NOR 6