Lex Runciman: "Two Stories and an Epilogue"




1. Woman with Two Boys


A woman with two boys has made her selections,

cart almost full, and she waits for the one checker,

a man her own age, who has worked all day alone

except for time spelled by the butcher,

time enough for a baloney sandwich, half a Nehi.

Late in the day now, it irritates him

how his back hurts and in the last hour 

mizzling rain has turned to large-flaked, drifty snow

white at the parking lot’s far reaches shaded by trees. 

To think of the tires on his pickup irritates him,

and the cleanup to be done alone before he can leave.

Cart after chrome cart lines up: coughing, grabby children,

pork chops, Tide, tuna cans, bulk peanuts, Spam

and slick milk glass quarts.




Blonde, middling height, brisk in her motions,

short hair, large purse.  Her older boy

kicks the cart wheels, stands in front of the cart

because he hopes he can hand the checker each item

one at a time—a silly wish, for no checker but one,

and then just once, and not this one, ever went along.

Still, he waits with a box of Cheerios, ready to hand it over. 

Which at last he does.  The checker, about his father’s age,

takes it, smiles and with his forearm moves the boy aside. 

It happens so quickly the boy thinks to himself

this checker has done this before, moved boys like him

with his left arm, no words, only a short firm shove. 

The boy, also blonde, is timid now.   He watches

the man’s hands, how when he grabs a round red can

some of the fingers show brown hairs.  All this

while the checker talks to the boy’s mother—

something about weather, which, glancing out,

they both agree could become a problem soon.



The older boy likes snow, its sound underfoot,

but he doesn’t interrupt.  Then, the checker

seeing at last the deep black hair of the boy’s

younger brother—seeing his broader nose

and darker skin—the checker looks to the older boy,

then to the younger again, then to the woman,

and says to her, “So, who’s that one’s father?” 

She had been reaching into her open purse,

guessing at the total bill, wondering how far

her cash this week would take her. 

The older boy sees his mother’s hands stop. 

He hears his brother in the cart seat, talking

to a box of tea bags, saying only to himself  T, T,

T, T.   His brother is three and knows his letters.


“So, who’s that one’s father?”—what a stupid question,

the older boy thinks.  Can’t he see that’s my brother?

But his mother’s hands have stopped moving.

He hears almost a whistle between her teeth,

a breath she holds a moment, then says,

“Oh, we found him near the carrots, in produce. 

He’s on special today.”  The older boy would laugh

except that he watches the checker’s face go red. 

He seems about to say something, but doesn’t.




Cart emptied, the checker bags everything—

three bags.  The woman has not looked up, not

met yet that man’s face.  She pays with a stack of bills. 

The checker hands her change, which she counts,

totaling it out loud – every bill, quarter, dime, nickel

and penny.  She puts the change in her red wallet

and the wallet into her purse, which snaps shut. 

On the way out, her younger son hands her the tea,

which she may or may not have paid for.

On the way out, they pass a gumball machine,

and though he cannot then say why or how,

the older boy knows enough not to ask.



2. Guilt


A fist, this one,

my own right hand, hit a girl in the mouth.

Such a diffident boy, my parents thought,

thus boxing lessons: jump rope, ten minutes

on the overhead bag, jump rope, ten minutes

on the body bag, catch the medicine ball’s

pouchy weight, and at the end, four rounds

in headgear – you fought or watched. 

I wanted a bloody nose, not the punches

but the white towel red after,

wadding it macho and back-handing it

into a locker room bin. 


That afternoon was warm, the bus home hot,

windows down.  Sometimes to fill boredom

Catholic children sang 99 bottles of beer on the wall.

The girl had yellow hair.  Older, she didn’t like

something about me, something I should remember

but don’t.  The ride home took an hour. 

Whatever she said, she said it over, again.  

I fidgeted, looked out the window, glanced at her

and away, so she knew, kept saying it—

likely she was bored.  Sparring, I never got angry.

At one end-of-year tourney I fought a boy

my weight but a year younger.  The corner guy,

all of 17, told me to put him down.  I jabbed

enough to win.   Mostly I was skinny,

small, smart enough not to fight. 

This girl, what she said, encouraged others.

They shifted seats, new voices to chant her tease. 

I turned to her, said in my yet unchanged voice

"Stop it.  I’ll hit you if you don’t stop." 

And right then I said stupid to myself.   

Because when she happily sang her refrain,


I had to hit her – flush on the upper lip and nose. 

Shock.  Eyes wider, face quivering. Then she cried. 

Cried so hard she threw up.  The driver swore,

pulled into a gas station, opened the emergency door,

sluiced out the vomit with a hose.  This made us late. 

No one spoke.  It's a long life since then.



Epilogue: What's Happened


The Roman legions of Trajan

have reassembled side by side

as bricks, immoveable ranks—

violence no more.  The drink

of that night of Othello's debut

in the banqueting house at Whitehall

has become the red of a common thrush,

head tilted, listening. As for the day

Adeline Virginia Woolf penned her last letter,

filled her pockets—that number 28

in the calendar of March each year

has become a seed for loamy ground. 

A little boy walks out a door. 

On either side, snow shoveled

rises taller than he is.  When he turns,

the house has a second storey,

his hands show callouses,

those he would question have gone.


Lex Runciman's recent poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Crannog (Ireland), Stand (UK), Nimrod, and are forthcoming in Miramar.  A book of new and selected poems will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2017.