• his death began on a coney island pier

    jimmy was the kind of person / who would pluck a worm out of a puddle / to save it from drowning / i must admit / i always rolled my eyes / when he stopped / and rescued them / always told him he was being stupid / then he’d wipe the slime on my shirt / and i’d chase him for three city blocks


    we met at steeplechase park / he oiled and shined and bolted rollercoasters / i played piano in a jazz band / he’d come every friday night / to foxtrot with a different girl / took me long enough to notice / that he never stared at any of the girls / the way he stared at me / as i played the maple leaf rag / took him long enough to notice / that i’d watch him dance / when his lady turned the other way


    i almost scared him off / the first time he kissed me behind the pavilion / i yelled out loud from shock / had never thought of kissing another boy / mama’s broom and papa’s belt beat that out of me / but before he could run / i grabbed his arm / and pressed his lips against mine once more / we stood there / in each other’s arms / listening to the pattering of the rain / and the piano-less band


    for a summer / coney island was heaven / and jimmy had a halo / meeting him after midnight / we’d walk the pier / and skip rocks on the ocean / and talk about another world / where we wouldn’t have to lie to our parents about why we remained bachelors / and slip coded letters into each other’s coat pockets / as if love was some cipher / some childish game so carelessly discarded / we held hands and watched the light bulbs go out / his calloused / rough fingertips intertwined / with my soft / cold ones


    once / i led jimmy into a photo booth / said it was the only chance the two of us had for a decent snapshot / in that whirlwind of flashing lights / and limbs stuck together / i felt something tense inside him / a jolt of apprehension / something pulling him away to another place for just a moment / he never said a word / but i sensed that both love and fear danced in his eyes / when he slipped the pictures in his pocket


    summers never last / autumn always comes / and i played piano elsewhere / traffic jams and dangerous sidewalks between my manicured house and jimmy’s brooklyn apartment / no matter how much i stared at the photo strips / letters got harder to write / things just got harder to say


    eventually papa’s belt and mama’s broom crept their way in through the door again / so i married a girl / with blue eyes and a half-hearted smile / who played the piano with soft / cold hands / jimmy didn’t want to come to the wedding / and i didn’t blame him / neither did i


    when pearl harbor got bombed / my first thought was if ivory keys would save me from the front / my second was if i should just jump out a window and let the pavement liberate me / not once did i think of jimmy / not until he sent me a letter / no cipher / no code / just a note telling me he was headed across the atlantic with the photo strip hidden in his shoes / and that he wished he would’ve taught me the foxtrot / before he left


    i never did end up at the front / the music saved me / kept me at military bases / wishing i was in algeria with him / he sent me one more letter / my wife figured out who jimmy was / and she was about to burn the envelope / a little vengeance for a disappointing husband and a lack of children to hold / but she stopped herself / and handed it to me without a word


    the letter said / that they’d found the photos / and they beat jimmy / sand in his eyes / blood in his mouth / but a lifetime of fixing amusement park rides / had prepared him adequately to fight back / he said he’d be home before i’d know it / and we’d see another summer at steeplechase / and i’d teach him the maple leaf rag /

    james matheson brown was killed / february twentieth / 1942


    friendly fire / is such an erroneous way to put it / there is nothing friendly / about shooting a man in the stomach / because of a photo you found in his shoe / labeled an accident / but i knew better / everyone knew better


    now i understand / why his pulse was so sharp / and his eyes so wild / in that photo booth on the pier / he could already feel the bullet sink into his gut / the acids seeping out onto his shirt / the dust and blood whipping past his face / he already knew / what a photo booth could do / but he stayed there and smiled and laughed/ because he loved me / in a way / i knew too / i saw every beginning and every ending from the moment my gaze met his / i knew i had to let him go / the moment i pulled him close / no man so good / so kind / no man who rescued worms from drowning / could last long enough / in a cruel world like this


    my wife put jimmy’s picture up in our living room / the evening after his funeral / i asked her why / she didn’t answer / just pulled the crinkled envelopes out of her pocket / looked out the window / at far off coney island / with its glimmering ferris wheel / and skyline of regret / placed the letters on the table / and went back into the kitchen / to get the pot roast out of the oven /