Curtis VanDonkelaar

I have always stood in exactly this spot. I am the pole that spins the earth at both ends. I am the pin in a hinge, allowing doors to open or shutting them. I am the rusty spike in a railroad tie, the X that marks the spot where the pirates used to be, the stem on an apple. I am stuck through the Earth like a roasting spit, turning, holding, tilting, an Earth stuck on the back of Atlas or of Sisyphus, the Earth below me. Stuck playing Ring Around the Rosie sun, rosy but not happy. This is Michigan. This is February. It’s winter. More like a small sun, alone and stone-cold, so far away. Like the flag island in the center of the lake. Like the hovering fish beneath the ice, floating as unbunched balloons, each of them by itself, not a foot above the sand and silt, not moving to conserve energy. Not moving to make things easier, to make them last longer or to end things sooner, closer to the ground. Norm hands me the cigarette and in the two seconds, five seconds, minute that I hesitate, Wilt is already defending me as he does, saying I don’t have to smoke it if I don’t want to, we should just get down by the tracks, time is running out. We should scurry down the hill as warm rabbits in summer. Billy has rabbit skin gloves and he always wears them when it’s under fifty because his mother is training to be a nurse and she tells him stories about frostbite every weekend and winter vacation, horror stories, stories presenting charred-black-toasted limbs. Why is it that I don’t just do it? Why is it so cold up on the hill, where yes, the wind hits us like a series of hidden freight trains, but it’s not so cold down on the tracks, which are only ten or twenty feet from the frozen water? Why isn’t there any snow left? Why did it melt already, just last week? January thaw, so my mother says. Why is it that all my friends have normal names, Billy and Steve and there’s also a Tom, even Norm, Norm the norm, the normal. Wilt is different, as is Norm’s middle name, which is Francis, making him into Norman Francis when we want to get him going. In ten years, it’ll be a better name, but Wilt is reaching for the cigarette, absolving me entirely of my turn, and at the last possible instant I reach out for it and say ok, why not. My mother has never said anything about cigarettes leading to pot, or to beer, which leads to liquor, and to sex, and drugs, and a baby when a young baby yourself, to where my mother is, and then there’s another generation of us on the lake, watching the whitecaps and the ice sheets moving like frosting across a cake’s top. Us on the lake, feeling the wind knock us down, the snowless, branchy fingers grabbing at our legs as we descend into the gully. The cement train in a minute, and the last thing I see is the lake, the flag on the island on the lake. The flag whips mad and fast and angry, as though it might tear loose and come across the water. The flag might sail straight toward us, fall into my open coat, settle down where it’s warm as a dying fire.






The flag island on the lake was (is?) a real and mysterious thing. I grew up pondering its rocky pennant-ness and never reached an understanding. I'm sure there exists an explanation/purpose/answer for such a thing, but after all these years and years, I'd rather not know. The pretend is powerful.