Poetry,  Special Issue

Ready or Not by Frank Light

Hearing no evil, fearing no man
prospective friends already
comfortable in their own sins and pancho liners
sleep the sleep of regular hours
undisturbed by passing showers
undetected scouts or unresolved doubts
let alone the zoned-out still up-and-about 
newbie too many days in transit, temporarily moody
antsy, goosy, small-town rube 
with much to prove, Repo Ray broods he
blew his cues, missed his moves
blew past his bedtime, crossed some red line
(you and yours, me and mine, theirs ill-defined) 
came off as paranoid, easily annoyed, hard to avoid
long-winded, slow-witted, guilt-ridden, glory-smitten, snakebitten
uncentered, unmentored, cred surrendered, judgment rendered 
or is he just not yet a vetted member?

tentative tremors 
temporal splinters 
lightning shears
                                                                                                                                                          floaters flitter
for all that glitters, there’s more that doesn’t
low-grade buzz under thunder peals 
the previously prickly ears of not-yet peers
bum steers and ten-cent beers
rum and Coke chasers
did him no favors
fingernail scrapers o the vapors dubious capers 
looming larger in rear-view 
mirrors smeared, old guard cashiered, careers defunct 
stuck-in-the-mud lifers stinking drunk in a fusty funk 
of their own who’d-a-thunk
who are they and who is he
to plunk his butt
on this musky bunk
laid out neat by the cleaning lady
maybe eighteen, nicknamed Baby
socks and underwear folded on top
footwear under, floor wet-mopped
so where’s his jacket, didn’t he unpack it?
weren’t there four, in fact –  
two at the tailors, one he wore to the… geez – 
the other in reserve?
he’ll ask, at least she’s approachable
heckuva way to meet the locals
best laid plans are only notional
not taking it personal, isn’t everything
purposeful, most things workable? 
with so much perishable
cherish what’s seared, and secured,
if nothing’s ventured
what’s revered?

                            Grandpa interred
                            with taps on tape
                            flag and flowers on the casket 
                            ratcheted lower in the rain
                            sunk by sudden cardiac arrest
                            Grandma clutching a basket, flabbergasted
                            Ray in dress greens, on compassionate leave from basic
                            a future light-wheeled vehicle mechanic
                            his mother in black
                            her own parents long lost to a car wreck 
                            standing dry-eyed and straight, her ex-husband late 
                            from a caribou camp in Quebec

                            as if by magic
                            all things drastic turn elastic 
                            mini to massive 
                            beyond credulity
                            self-inflicted cruelty
                            as Grandpa would say, pure tomfoolery

not sweating any would-be enemies, 
laying low in the laws
of probability, the epitome of serenity, 
his grandson’s buddies-to-be like logs in a millpond
saw burring and they’re feeling no pain
as if they’ve done this before, will do it again
and there’s more where this came from
not Ray now Ray at the Ready, he’s learned never to assume
always make room 
can’t help but remember 
abhorring a vacuum,
nature moves inward

                            point being don’t swim against the tide
                            rather, stroke to the side
                            pump gas at the Texaco biding your time
                            I’ll find you something, Ray Sr. promised, but you gotta be forceful 
                            let ‘em know up front you have what they want
                            hold this – they were changing the oil – 
                            first you have to want it 
                            for yourself and for them, got it? 
                            hitch up your trousers, be resourceful

                            it’s also important, his mom said while sharing a beer,
                            to know what you don’t want
                            it can sneak up on you
                            it did me
                            don’t ask
                            your Grandma said you were thinking about the Army
                            why not give junior college a try?

                            at the county fair the summer after high school
                            his old prom date said in the dusk, her hand firm on his arm
                            lights twinkling, calliope reciting, ferris wheel berthing
                            roller coaster swooshing, girls shrieking sheer terror sheer joy
                            she needed direction
                            when in two weeks she’d be off to the university
                            and he needed less, not more
                            she too but didn’t realize it
                            she wanted to be friends, brushing at his cowlick, 
                            just friends, practicing

                            wasn’t even that with a stranger he met at a Labor Day kegger
                            who got in his ‘49 Plymouth known as the Mayflower she wasn’t ready
                            only wanted a ride before the rain you could smell it coming
                            up from Bangor with a friend of a friend from Medway she couldn’t find
                            white-buttoned white lacy blouse and thin, too thin 
                            looked him in the eye then down at her hands and his
                            shallow breaths and a long sigh, sighs 
                            twitchy as a squirrel, freckled nose, temples, giveaway dimples
                            brushed his arm once and again while he drove, 
                            hairs bristling, goosepimples tingling as if it weren’t happening but it could
                            and gave him her number when he asked with a brisk thanks-for-the-ride kiss 
                            and one for the road but something was amiss, an eyelid tic, trembling lips
                            could you slow down? she said, her long-legged foot tap tap tapping 
                            Slow, slow. Ray. Please
                            should have seen the Red Ball express on the round trip
                            bat out of hell, first drops falling, flashbulb sky to the west
                            next time we’ll talk, she said, seeing he wasn’t ready 
                            story of his life
                            so far

                            Patricia went by Patty
                            fuzz like frost on her cheeks, smile a shooting star
                            set herself on fire in the snow
                            January or was it March?
                            lawnmower can of gas outside her car by a clearcut
                            it made the paper, no reason given 
                            just as well 
                            what use are signs that point backward 
                            (or inward where everything starts) 
                            when it’s forward for all to see? 

                            over Thanksgiving the prom date admitted to another guy
                            you ask who, you’re given a why
                            even junior college you have to apply
                            and still might need a loan
                            join the Navy, wrote an old teammate who did, 
                            see the world through a porthole
                            GI Bill for when you’ve had your fill 

same with the Army and you’re not as confined

                            Ray then Ray What Say also went by Rockin Ray played the guitar
                            football and baseball good hands but never learned to dribble
                            his Dad said go out for quarterback like your grandfather
                            swore he would’ve too if he hadn’t hurt his knee
                            not me, said the son, I’m the world’s skinniest tight end  

                            by all accounts his Dad had been a handful, left the girls tearful
                            Grandma as ever an earful, Grandpa the sentinel 
                            twenty years as a faller, hard bark, soft core
                            said follow your star 
                            Grandma works indoors
                            talking as she files she gets it out 

                            Grandpa a veteran
                            Iran in the Big One
                            Persia it was then
                            saw Churchill, FDR, and Stalin 
                            issued an M-1 and a .45 fired only at the range
                            someone cooked his meals, cleaned his room
                            he winked for Grandma: just like home
                            already a father he missed his son
                            they’d fish for lake salmon
                            with a thermosful of her famous mulberry wine
                            she on the thwart chatting and knitting 
                            son and grandson once climbed Mt. Katahdin 
                            ran out of water, one of life’s little lessons
                            each fall they’d hunt for bear (never got one), deer, duck, and pheasant
                            dressing the kill turned his mom off venison
                            now a vegetarian, a travel agent in Boston
                            his father sells Oldsmobiles in Portland
                            won an all-expenses, three-day trip to Motown
                            drives a Rocket 88 
                            a Marlboro man

sentiment a precipitate
filtered silt the sediment 
pitcher spilt, bottles clinked
jinx, jive, beehive overdrive 
caffeine jitters, lizards twitter
skitter, scurry under the flooring 
weary, bleary, fan whirring
reminding Redeye Ray how he’d embrace the storms
arms spread mouth to the sky rain the world over
it’s he that’s on a tangent he hopes, he fears
storm clearing
ozone and outlines
snorts and snoring
advance warning 
recurring pangs
behavioral mooring tied to events
39 winks 
out of sequence

keep him sleepless 
applesauce cake a lifelong weakness
beat him here but spoiled on arrival in aluminum foil
a note with a World War I flying ace at the top says love be careful 
should have trashed it 
before the roaches 
poached it
splat! take that
back and

off kilter
spheres hurtle
parallel coils
the carousel curls
full circle

waves around brawn
aegis foregone
forefathers pawned
alien spawn

                            Can you remember? prim and proper Patty asked, leaning back into the car.
                            Or should I write it down?
                            Mind like a steel trap, he replied.
                            An elephant, she said, that firefly smile
                            didn’t last any more than a gasp. Thankless task.
                            Did six come before seven or only when counting?

                            his Mom brought up his old quarterback, now in Toronto
                            you don’t care for the city, what about St. John?
                            she had an aunt in St. John
                            after the service she pressed a charm into his palm
                            the St. Christopher she offered all her clients and now her only son
                            only child, it’s on a braid the prom date gave him
                            when she heard he was on orders 
                            her exboyfriend not really a boyfriend, she said, 
                            just a friend who wasn’t ready
                            ha-ha who is these days?
                            well, her roommate for one
                            they drove crosscountry crashed a pad in LA
                            couldn’t relate when he stopped on his way to Travis
                            among acquaintances of mutual convenience 
                            and consciously spacey in the vacancies 
                            between what could have been and LSD 
                            mescaline and still could be
                            the braid on his chest like a camp craft 
                            the Mayflower on blocks at his father’s 
                            together they replaced its transmission
                            took the better part of a weekend
                            $200 and still it clunks
                            what you get when you love your junk too much

                            standby out of Jackson Ray made every flight
                            early morning to late at night
                            everybody more than polite they were kind
                            he must have looked sad, scared, lost or stoned 
                            he’d never before flown

the known so few
the unknown so many
not all of them friendly
for every drop of empathy
a bog of apathy
deepening pool of enmity
and memories rise like weeds to the rain
the purr of the present drowned by the splatter
the familiar laughed at, ratpack claptrap
catch a catnap
negative contact 

did he jump or was he pushed 
misses the crux where motives mesh
rushing, swept up and along
headlong headstrong 
is how it came to this

                                                        alternative universe
                                                        antithetical hands, thumbs opposable
                                                        skilled, well-drilled, coolly methodical, eerily mechanical
                                                        virtually robotic, quasi-narcotic, metronomic
                                                        nut job? were it so
                                                        no, it’s zeal
                                                        nerves of steel
                                                        not paranoia when it’s real

                                                        increments ringed
                                                        lanyard yanked
                                                        charge combusted 
                                                        insomnia outflanked 
                                                        pin pinged
                                                        a calculated destiny 
                                                        accelerating ascent 
                                                        parabolic apogee 
                                                        stabilized descent
                                                        wends tail-finned 
                                                        transcends the counterfactual 
                                                        once augured
                                                        arcs to actual 
                                                        seminal capsule 
                                                        impulse impact
                                                        maximum extract 
                                                        out of –

Ray’s pulse palpitates 
skips a track
syncopates, elevates 
out of the sack
lungs in suction
percussive eruption
concussive induction 
voltage jolted gauntlet vaulted 
off-screen phosphene light beam
kaleidoriot dark inside it
benighted, blindsided 
golden petals blow and settle
test of mettle, bang the kettle
clang the echo, uh-oh
ears cuffed, sand cratered
knuckles scuffed, breathing labored
drawing a blank, looking askance 
at clumped, cluttered, moonlit apparatus 
the locker door clanks, lancing the trance 
striking the match and – ow ow ow – calf cramps
air tamped, a maelstrom, madness decompressed
cranked, jacked, ramped, amped 
suppressed yips and yammers yield to clamors 
stamp, tramp, stump 
unsnag the trousers off the hook
there’s a jacket – under the trousers!
bottom up
left into left, right – oop, fly in front – 
your military right, hitch, kick
trip, rip, get a – 
              “Get it on!”
jungle boots, laces loose
walls pelted, bedlam welcome
              “My helmet!”
used so seldom
regulation compels him
checks shelf
licks thumb
umm, crumbs


                                         “Under your bunk.”
did he put it there or was it Baby
behind the corcorans, crazy
tug drag drape lug traipse
                                         “This way, Kiddo!”
web belt
standstill at the threshold
flesh cold and sweaty
hair raised, legs heavy
blazed air
                                                                                                                                                          flayed confetti 
plastered sober
developing composure
double exposure

                            TV on in full disclosure
                            black and white Ray’s incubator
                            Beau Geste inculcator, special-effects the detonator
                            Bogart, Bendex, Wayne
                            Grandpa’s den, Millinocket, Maine
                            Narragansetts and Slim Jims on the divan 
                            where men were men more than willing to let Grandma in
                            with something fresh from the oven 
                            or nothing but her needles and knitting
                            scarves, cardigans, afghans, caps, and mittens
                            a beagle named Snoopy since Grandpa nixed kittens
                            on the whole she preferred the kitchen
                            radio, dominoes, pinochle, the accordion
                            Grandma was, is, Acadian
                            been to Quebec but never St. John

                            with Rockin Ray on the 12-string they’d do Cajun and Hank Williams
                            and when his Dad was around he’d sing, flat-out croon, hands over heart
                            your cheating heart down on the bayou
                            his mother loved her show tunes
                            Oklahoma, the King and I, and South Pacific
                            which he saw with her under a tent, summer theater
                            she taught him the foxtrot and waltz 
                            jitterbug he knew
                            taught her to boogaloo

so here he stands, first and last of the litter
sweetens the bitter
hurts Grandma the way his parents bicker
separating, he thinks, made it simpler
simpler still is not to think
jab, jink
go on instinct

let ‘em scoff
helmet off and on the wall, foul ball
outlaw doll, canvas shawl
Squared-away Wasn’t-Born-Yesterday Ray What Say withdraws
from the pocket where he stocked it
tailored beret belayed his way
over the brow, low to the lobe
incomings plunging as they may
unbent, unbowed, proud 
rising to the challenge
innards in the balance
as, as, as the outer glowers

tower watches
keyed on
bead on
tufted swatches
lead on
feed on
feet on fire
more required
shaky sketchy shifty tricky
ejection sticky fifty/.50
harried handler crosshair channeler
jerks hammer, cusses, fusses, fixes quickly 
extracalibur lubed and glandular
transposed traveler
pinhole camera
jimi jammerer and raconteur
immature in the grandeur of Alamo losers, recruiting posters 
smelling the roses, all Ray knows
is he’s no poser no voyeur

                                         “You with us, sport?”
determined doer on a one-year tour
                  “All the way!”
catch up, lash up
running swift
and tall
as if
it were all
in the distance
when it’s not it’s near
or coexistent
              “Get your –”
                                                                                                                                                          out of nowhere
force majeure 
meets esprit de corps
can’t happen here 
happened here

down and dirty
earthen gurney
way too early
flipped, thrashed

                                         “It’s the Kid!” 
stillness ominous
up against an invisible fence
never sensed 
winces, clenches
aspirate screeches sibilant screams 
getting that hand-me-down, pissant-puny carbine clean
spic ‘n span the magazines
no time to zero in

                                         “He’s hit!”
and you hate to say it’s nothing or, worse,
ask in light of last night where’s it coming from next

                                         “This yours?”
St. Christopher and a broken braid
barechested, upended
bewildered, heels forward 
hand to forehead 
thwarted, bothered
circuits shorted, distorted, norms disordered 
can’t absorb it neck contorted
mugged, clobbered, horse-collared
decked and routed
scalp metallic
rub the cowlick
yet spared
throat laid bare
nylon garrote
inadvertently barbaric
bemoan and bear it
nod and point
hate to disappoint
              “Fucking clothesline.”
splayed and supine
hurt worst at first
reverts in spurts
twirls, whirls

a wispy wale
pale contrail
moon in full
mouth of wool
Baby’s laundry pail
luffed sail
closepinned flail
damp shirttail
left to dry
askew, awry
in the detritus
almost lost it
nauseous, noxious
aching coccyx
guess what stops it
kills the gossip
action rocks it

roll over
drool and slobber 
right the keel
kneel, totter
slow peeling
off of logy; poky; mopey; ugh, pukey;
crr-croaky to okey-dopey

                                         “A hand?”
stand burping, gurgling
gag, stagger
no sandbagger or lollygagger
harmless braggart
prone to bluster
cut the crap
and the mustard
close the gap
carry the torch
last seen on the porch
a smile that asked did he dare
a question of when, the answer within:
deliverance goes to those who deliver 
however wherever no matter when
swagger, sway
                                         “Learn you to keep your head down, eh?”

                                         “And, Kid – ” 
              “Ray. Ray.”
                                         “Ray. One more thing – ”
              “My jacket!”
he totally forgot it
one on the hook, other on the line
brain balks, ears squawk 
introspective retrospective reconnected
cracks caulked
                                         “Don’t let the first shirt see you without a helmet.”

sink or swim
it’s on him
in him not them 
for them from them bless them 
wish them well
one in heaven, one at the mill
hand on the wheel
bat out of hell
false alarm for the inevitable
another go, another limbo


In recent years a number of Frank Light‘s poems, stories, and essays have been published, many of the essays from a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. 

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