Veteran's Day

by Marie Howe

Marie Howe

The boys of summer are climbing the building,
splayed dark against the stone, they are using ropes.
Climbing together, three of them, in T-shirts

and corduroys, hauling each other up, story
by story, stopping to speak carefully, deciding
direction: who will go first, who will belay,

who will wait on the ledge they are leaving, climbing
slowly this way, watching each other's sneakers.
Years planning, a few missteps admittedly,

several mix-ups at bus stations, a few times,
the phone ringing, no one there, but now
the boys are climbing and together, deliberate

as flies. Below them, the doors open. Grownups
stumble out, dazed from inside the dark, to watch
the boys climbing in the sun, some whistling

between their teeth, some grumbling a little.
As women, settling on the grass, spread their skirts,
the boys test their holds, put, each of them, one foot

on the ledge and bounce on their heels to feel the rope
pull taut and safe, and they don't look down. Some
of the grownups are thinking of calling the police.

The boys of summer climb, stopping now only
to rest, pressing their faces flat against the stone
to watch each other and wink, wondering

how they'll hook up to the fourth floor, where they know
there are suddenly windows. The day wanes. It is,
after all, November. The dark comes early.

Windows, as the expected, open. Hands grab
for their long American legs. The boys, laughing,
pull up their feet and stand, watching the fingers

crawl on the sill. Some of these hands they almost
recognize. Finally, there are sirens,
a kind of music. Night falls

and the boys climb in the searchlights, practicing
for the final ascent. The men directing the beams
caressing them with the incredulity

boys feel when a fly is caught finally in the fist
after a thousand times trying. The grownups
bundled into lawn chairs, drink coffee.

The boys hang like spiders and sleep, and all night
the lights caress them as the grownups watch.
At dawn, the boys of summer rise and climb again.

They are not hungry. They go slower now. There is,
between them, something invisible. Forgetting
the ropes, they stare at each story with the calculated

glances of serious climbers and they believe
everything they see. They love each other now,
climbing easily, some might say like monkeys,

they have forgotten the feel of the earth flat
underfoot, climbing like this, into autumn,
their working shoulders impossibly beautiful

as they squint, shading their eyes with sunburned fists,
the crowd, catching on, muttering story after story,
as the boys climb, by now, almost a fiction,

too high to be seen clearly. But how they glow
in their boy's strength and their beauty and their love.
What else would we have them do? They were born for this.

They know it. The crowd thickening below them
as they scramble finally to the gravelly roof
and stand, stretching then still, for one moment

before they leap, each of them, or fly, in almost
perfect swan dives, and fall
like stones, or like boys

with the thud of sure premonition to the eventual
pavement, buckling, and man-made, that has been waiting
all this time, for them, with a deep and perfect gravity.

Last updated November 12, 2022