I barely remember my friends then, or how we got to
the Chicago Blues Festival, fumbling through endless cornfields
toward drunkenness, praying for the oblivion of Buddy Guy’s
nickel-strung wails, tin-can walkdowns,
the fistful of quarters we saw freight-train the glass jaw
of the man who said this music ain’t even cold shit.
What boys jet-fueled on hormones and PBR, their orange needles
quivering in mineral oil at pressure’s upper limits,
don’t love witnessing an assault? After the festival’s
last fuzzed-out chord we drove south to the first hotel
that didn’t require ID, and collected our wallets we buried
with our belts and crushed beer cans in the crease
of the car seat. I had just shouldered my backpack
when a door whammed open. A shriek spiderwebbed
memory’s glass when the nude woman flailed by, clothes spilling
from her arms not unlike money, or prize winnings.
An emaciated man who could have been my grandfather
wrapped a towel around his skinny black shanks, wilting pud,
as he emerged, then sprung after. I remember he caught her
in what must have been only a few seconds, and his fist
ham-handing her neck was the gnurled pop of chicken bones
pulled apart. I didn’t know to laugh or puke. Open my mouth
and turn to those faceless friends, and force breath through,
or run. The things I didn’t know you could’ve filled
a burlap sack with and thrown off a bridge.
The unbelievable violence so unlike how a boy of eighteen
imagines in his strangely hopeful dreams of conflict
and ensuing vindication where, days after on the news
it’s his finger that squeezes the ten-gauge’s crescent,
his shotgun that sponges that midnight intruder’s face
with buck-shot. I only stood cemented to her scream
and cracked asphalt like one of the fifty in the New York courtyard
years ago where the woman was murdered, everyone looking on,
sure everyone else was phoning for help. No one phoned.
He turned to me, smiled, and I knew that I was
no better than any accomplice. He turned back to her
and the second mash of knuckle on flesh was lead hammering
into my bankrupt crucible, and it hardened in the arc-sodium
lights, and my shadow, and the shape my body cast.
Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro, IL. Having finished his MFA at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, he now works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will one day get him to the salt flats of Bolivia. He has published work in The Iowa Review and on Poetrydaily.org, among others, and his first collection, How We Bury Our Dead, was released by Cobalt/Thumbnail Press in March 2015.