March 5, 2014

Al Ortolani

Following Junkyard *

My father, as athletic trainer,
let me tag the sidelines
with a small plastic doctor’s bag.

He loved the scrappers, tough guys
busting for a fight—my favorite
was Junkyard, Vietnam bound,

half-concussed, fingers taped
in make-shift splints. As free safety,
Junkyard was the forlorn hope.

Small, but wiry, he launched
his body like a bola, like a sling,
like a helicopter prop.

I followed Junkyard all season

with rolls of tape, nylon-wrapped
smelling salts, and a strange
plastic corkscrew which

when wedged between teeth
could pry open a locked jaw. 
Junkyard wasn’t far from

joining the punch drunk and
selling popcorn in the stands.
He should have taken up badminton,

miniature golf, or watercolor.
Quit, Dad said, before you feel
as bad as you look. I dropped salt pills

into Junkyard’s paw. He winked at me
behind his facemask and grinned
with his toothless, baby-pink gums.


On the Sidelines

The word on the street was that Tony
had been a genius, a lawyer maybe,

but scarlet fever had cooked his brain; synapses
had melted into gruel. What was left 

kept him shackled, tongue on a spoon
slurping syllables, eyes watery,

rheumatic on game days. He chewed
Union plug, spit on the grass, hands

pocketed with notepads and pencils.
The administration complained about Tony,

a village idiot on the sidelines, ragtag,
unseemly for a conference powerhouse.

He displayed his field pass on a lariat
looping his neck. Each year the same―

coaches planned, posed scenarios,
consulted cigars. Tony paced

the twenty yard line, his flap of brain,
inflamed with offense, moving the chains.


Al Ortolani is a public school teacher in the Kansas City area. His poetry and reviews have appeared in New Letters, The Quarterly, The English Journal, New York Quarterly and other fine places. He has published several books of poetry: The Last Hippie of Camp 50 and Finding the Edge, from Woodley Press, Wren's House, from Coal City Press, and Cooking Chili on the Day of the Dead, from Aldrich Press. He is an editor for The Little Balkans Review and works closely with the Kansas City Writer's Place.

* Following Junkyard is a 2014 Editor's Favorite

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