The Boiler

Alan King

SURVIVAL

Don’t go for your back pocket right away,
your dad’s friend once told you.
Let him see you unarmed and harmless.
The percussion in your chest
booming through you.

It started when you brushed by the brotha
before he checked his leather sleeve for scratches
and spotted a loose thread—barely half an inch.

Your fuse was just as short at 12,
when you almost ripped the bathroom door
to smack your cousin, who unplugged
the Nintendo just before you beat
his score in Contra.

But time tempered your attitude
until that moment on Rhode Island Avenue
where, earlier, the lullaby of a woman’s name
chimed your head.

The woman, whose number you got.
Keisha at the bus stop, with those jeans
snug as peach skin hugging lush bright flesh.
She laughed when you told her,
I can die today ‘cause I just lived a lifetime 
lookin’ at you.

In your mind’s horizon, you saw yourself
with her cozy in a straw-roofed villa, surrounded
by scented votive candles, tuning each other
to primitive key signatures.

You’d rather be there, eating roasted duck
and sipping an expensive Shiraz,
than standing outside Good Times Liquor,
holding your Coke and Hot Fries.

You’d just as soon dap the brotha and say,
My bad, than be the animal the local TV news
cycles through its horror Cinema.

But this guy wants to rattle your world
and make you a cricket in a monsoon. His knife,
a row of alligator teeth, is anxious to scissor your guts
and crumble you on the sidewalk.

Too bad nothing’ll shake his determination.
So, you let him think he’s a rattlesnake, and you
a frightened hamster. You don’t squander the chance
to put him at the bottom of the food chain.

You say, You can go out like a punk
or we can duke it out. When he billows
toward you—all knuckle and fury—
that’s when you grab your blade.

SLIPPERY

The need for change bulldozed a road down the center
of my mind.

—Maya Angelou

Hey man, I know I did some triflin‘ stuff back in the day.
I’m not that cat anymore.

—Rahim

That Facebook message pops up
after a decade of silence. It’s Rahim Clayton.
Most folks called him “Droopy” because
every time he blazed blunts
his eyes were shade-drawn windows.

Others called him Shadow—
the emcee assassin, collecting
microphone casualties.

I knew him as Rahim, the poet
who called every brotha “king”
and greeted their women, “Peace queen!”

Let a guy get distracted,
Fah was Nagchampa smoke
in that woman’s afro, her black dashiki
and tight jeans.

He was Terrance to his mom
before he joined the army.

I made him mad once, joking
he had more aliases than witness protection.
Who you owe money?  I snapped. Whatchu‘ hiding?

He’s married now and wants to know
if we can hang out again.

Just the other day,
working a metal cart through
the baking aisle, I spotted a woman
who put icicles in my blood.

She was standing near the spices
and herbs, wearing jeans
and a cayenne-color blouse.

But she wasn’t who I thought she was.
Her paprika-bright lips and adobo tan skin
brought back a moment nearly a decade ago.

She resembled that woman
Rah hooked me up with
at a bar in Manhattan.

Her name was Catalonia
like the itch on Spain’s head
that holds Barcelona’s sapphire sunsets.
Cat’s eyes were that blue.

Her hair made me think
of a magic fountain—
its cascade of curls lit by
pink, blue, and green laser lights.

Three months later, we were bobbing
our heads to Talib Kweli and Dead Prez
at a live show in Central Park.

I was planning another trip up there
before Rah swooped on her
when his other plans fell through.

He boasted about his fling
with her—how her mouth played over
his tender parts, how she was a bright horn
whose notes he jazzed out.

He was the Trojan horse.
His bad intentions overran
the lives of those trusted him
before they ran him out of the city.

He was a used Lifestyle
lying on a sidewalk, a drooping Magnum
in a stairwell, lubricant oozing
from its wrapper.

I could hate him
if time wasn’t a bulldozer,
if forgiveness wasn’t a road paved
down the center of my mind.

And yet my mouse lingers
over his message, wondering
whether to respond
or close him out.

_____________________________________________________

Alan King is an author, poet, and journalist.He is currently the Creative Writing teacher for the Literary Media and Communications Department (LMC) at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. His poems and essays appear internationally in more than 160 anthologies, journals and magazines. He’s a Cave Canem Fellow, and an alumnus of the VONA Workshops sponsored by Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine. He’s a two-time Best of the Net nominee and was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Drift (Willow Books/Aquarius Press, 2012) is his first book.