Toes a breath from the 20 yard line, eight
counts left to rest before I stand again
is always when the flush (closer now
to love than shame) catches me,
its fuel unmetered and unmindful of the three
minutes still to go, marking only the eight
that have brought me here, and every
stride and snap of my work
flinging a flag into the wind.
I’d thought, when I first saw the steps, those
counts would be a respite, but cured
in the kiln of a Deep South summer, all
I want to do is move, extend my arm
through aluminum pole and metallic patchwork standard,
fly like a harrier or a banshee into what’s next: the most difficult
moment of the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Two decades later it’s still unbested.
Not just the toss (the heaviest flag, thrown
far enough ahead to keep pace with a dash
to the sideline) but the summer of sleep nightly broken
by the move from bus to gymnasium floor, the deep-drill
ache of hips all day at attention, the spasms drawing
through my soles like a marionette’s rigging,
after marching, poorly fed, through daylight and into the dark.
But the truth behind that toss: the trick of the
pole lying parallel on air, the trailing wake of silk,
the solid strike of the catch, aluminum in my hands
not quite the sharp chime of ball to bat, but its echo
off a 17-year-old’s palms, was all in letting go.