Rooftop Icarus

I recall how the tiny bits of gravel
on the shingles dug into my bare knees,
leaving them looking like a scraped
old orange with a sample of the
gray or brown grit dug in there
to remind me about the slipperiness
of gravity. About how the higher you climbed,
the greater the fall. About being an Icarus
with denim and flannel wings.
That’s what I most remember, even more
than seeing a larger world from above,
while so much below appeared smaller.
Lying there, the flat of my back to
the pitched drape of decision my climb
to a higher plane offered.
In the morning or evening you had
a choice of staring into that light
or skittering over to the solar leeward side
of the house, where a too-quick move
could leave you scraped and bloody
or sliding with a skipped heartbeat
and then the air-hammer nailing of
that very abridged account of
your existence to the inside of your chest.
Believe me, it is the only time in your life
where you’re happy to end up in the gutter.

May 4, 1970 ~ Recollection

It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it is the equivalent of more than the sum of two of the lives lost that day. Believers in peace faced Saturday soldiers over a shooting war a world away from Ohio. Four young people died on campus in Kent that day. So much innocence lost with them. So much anger and sadness and fear took its place. I can still hear it.

A week later, this high school senior and his parents visited the campus he would attend come September. As we arrived in the lecture hall, the head of the campus’ student government was doing what student government heads did those days. He shook his fist and warned that if it could happen in Ohio, it most certainly could happen in western New York.

This of course, put Mom on edge. She never said she worried about me getting shot. I think she was more concerned about me diving into the deep end of adulthood after 17 years in the wading pool. I of course, a worldly-dopey teenager suddenly gushing testosterone for the first time in my life, couldn’t wait to cannonball.

My first night on campus, all of us tucked away in our dorms, we were rousted by the fire alarms and hustled away from our buildings. As we guys meandered around campus on that warm September night, we scoped the girls in their nighties and all considered this extremely cool. No fire. Just cops and fire engines and campus security and girls in their nighties. No harm, no foul.

It was on our way back, after the all-clear, that I heard a cop talking to a fireman, saying that word had it the Black Panther Party in Rochester had called in a bomb threat on campus. That was my adulthood belly flop. It stung a little.

A week later, a day after my eighteenth birthday, I was required to wander (not yet march) into the local office of Selective Service and register for the Draft. A short while later, when the draft lottery numbers were pulled for this batch of eighteen-year-olds, I received number 46 out of 365. That was my belly flop from the high board. Peace with honor became a yearning just for peace.

I only bring this all up because of the date. This anniversary seems particularly poignant for me, maybe because I don’t know if I’ll even be around for Number 50. And because memory has become such a brittle, such a fragile, such a valuable thing to me. And maybe it’s because I’m sensing so many echoes of 1968-69-70 in widescreen high-def, surround-sound these days. Isn’t it terrible and wonderful what recollections of a boyhood crossroads can stir up?

I know now that if it could happen in my United States in 1970, like it happened in a nice midwestern college town like Kent, Ohio, it could just as easily happen for some reason important to different groups of people in 2015 somewhere near all of us.

Sorry, just an old man recalling and thinking out loud. Carry on.


As the man in the midnight blue silk suit nibbled his date’s neck again, instead of the now-cold Chateaubriand for Two on the plates sitting before them, Eddie Pietro pulled at his collar and twisted his narrow black tie once more.

“Jesus F’ing Christ, why don’t these two just climb on the table and get it over with? At least someone would be done with their business before midnight,” Eddie said in the kitchen doorway to the busboy, Martin Leo.

“Chill, man, not like you got no woman waiting for you out there tonight,” Martin said to the back Eddie’s sweat-stained white shirt as the waiter steamed to the men’s room again.

Eddie parked himself on the toilet, locked the stall door and shook out the barest remains in the cocaine vial onto the back of his hand while, at a club across town, Loosh glared at his knock-off Piaget, decided he couldn’t wait any longer and whispered into the ear of the college boy on his lap, “Hey, Cariño, would you like a bump?”

Based on the Five Sentence Fiction prompt WAITING.

First Prize


First PrizeWhen I became a teen, and tired of sharing beds, berths and fraternity with my four brothers, I moved into the unheated room off the kitchen of our home. In winter, I’d scrunch my body into a fist and tightly cocoon it head to toe within a wool blanket. Then I’d shake my body to generate enough heat to simmer me off on an eight-hour hibernation.

If I scraped a hole in the frost off my window, beneath the winter moon I could peek into the neighbors’ diaries written in laundry on clothes lines that strung from back porches to poles at the other end of shotgun barrel backyards. And across the railroad tracks over into West Albany, shining above it all, you could see the all-night sundown glow from the giant sign above the Tobin Packing Company plant .

On summer nights, when the room and I needed an open window to breathe, we’d hear the trains go through and some clank to a stop outside the slaughterhouse. I even heard the sound of the hogs being squeezed from their airless rail cars along the narrow suspended walkway into the factory. From there they were somehow scrunched into sausage casings, packed side-by-side as First Prize hot dogs, a pitiless and final escape.

Years later, on a blowtorch summer afternoon, I sneaked behind a wall into the abandoned plant. I climbed to the room where the hogs blindly ran in the cruel hope of escaping untenable overcrowding with their brothers. I remember seeing walls shedding their old paint like forgotten ancient frescoes, the concrete basin stained with lost life in the killing room, the necklace of hooks on a chain encircling the room and hearing ghosts and echoes I didn’t wish to hear. Looking eastward out a vacant casement, I tried to see my bedroom window across the haze of distance and time.

And, on that August afternoon, I shivered in the cold.

© 2014, Joseph Hesch. All rights reserved


The Things I Carry


Image Credit: James Speed Hensinger | Vietnam 1970

That dream returned last night, the one where shadows
dressed for bed crawl toward my resting place.
All I can do is lie there and wait,
knowing it’s coming, pickled in a perspiration
exotic, torporific, frantic, paralytic.
I dream these nights of being in-country,
asleep in a faraway land I did not know,
but in a bed I do.

The dark figures, with faces vaguely familiar,
sometimes raid my slumber when I see
their waking work in an old friend or
in scorching color on television.
My dream-self awakens to the nightmare pop-pop-pop
of small arms fire, the b-r-r-rap-b-r-r-rap
of the M-60 spitting All-American fireworks
into three-dimensional silhouettes, and then
comes the tripwire boom of upright, soaking reality
in which I do not wear olive armor on my back 
nor upon my shoulders lug a sackful of
the things they carried.

My burden has no measurable weight but that
which I give it. My rank is guilty civilian,
a lifer who lucked out in the 1970 lotto
that saw boys next to me busted by
an insane spin of numbers.
Awake in this safe and dark bedroom,
I envision bodies and lives broken,
maimed, lost. And God help me, there are times
when I lie back down and stare at those ghosts
on the dark ceiling, and in some distorted sense
of shame and confusion, I may envy some 
their losses.

I had a hard time with this one. I wrote a very “Joe” fireworks poem yesterday in its place, but every time I looked at the photo up there, a prompt from my friend Kellie Elmore, this new (too darn long) poem came exploding back at me. It’s something that’s been simmering inside me — even wrote a short story about it — since long before I ever saw that photo. I post it with great reservation because I revere what these guys suffered and endured and don’t wish to diminish or dishonor that with the prattling of some stupid hump of a middle-aged “poet.” I guess what I’m trying to say is I had to write this someday.

When the Lilacs Bloom

When the lilacs bloom, pungent and purple,
spring freshets run from my nose,
eyes and memory. I clench my face
like a fist and shake it with each sneeze
in explosive protest to the flower’s
reputed beauty and all months beginning in M.

Locked within bleared and puffy eyes,
it’s my mind sees the plaster Virgin,
a finger missing from her right hand,
enshrined in lilacs and pale blue crepe paper
in the corner of our classroom.

I can feel rosary beads in my hands,
an abacus of calculated Catholic indoctrination
for a boy longing to sin just once,
preferably with one of the alabaster virgins
pressed close to my compass points.

Funny what flowers like frothy amethysts
will do to an old man when a young man’s
fancies would turn those pubescent blossoms
of my youth to thoughts of budding lust.

Think I’m caught up now for NaPoWriMo and Poem-A-Day April. Don’t ask where this came from. I have no idea. I was free writing and I thought how close May is today.

Exchanging Glances ~ A Story

All I ever could muster were shy glances at them, my muddy eyes unworthy to look into her turquoise and lapis treasure rooms into which all the boys I could never be sought audience.

Whenever I saw her in the hallway, I would drop my attention to her shoes, knees, what color hosiery she wore that day. I’m sure I came across as some mumbling fetishist whenever I was in her presence. Floor tiles and I had the eye to eye relationship I dreamed of having with her. Hell, the one I wish I had with the whole world.

But one day, as I turned the hallway corner, my nose pointed to the furthermost frontiers of my footsteps, she and I collided in a mélange of arms, legs and parts hitherto unknown to my virgin, clumsy touch. The whole world turned topsy-turvy. Shamefaced, head-down, I skittered to my knees, gathering books, papers, purse contents and a view of blue tights I’d only previously seen on clotheslines.

I looked up to see her staring into my eyes. Since I’d picked up everything off the floor and nowhere in my hands could I find a pile of courage, I concentrated on the bridge of her nose. Eight, nine, ten freckles’ worth.

“You really should keep those cute brown eyes up when you’re walking, Bashful. And from now on, especially when you’re talking…to me.” she said.

Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fift…

That’s what it took, you know, when is was fourteen going on fifteen. I had to turn the world upside down to see things as she did, as they probably should be, as they eventually would be for the next thirty years with my blue-eyed treasure.

That was the day when all my looking down began looking up.

This is a very fast — and VERY LONG — free write based on a quote from Joanne Harris offered by my friend, the wonderful writer and poet Kellie Elmore. I never know where Kellie’s prompts will take me. In this case, the journey was a hell of a lot more pleasant than the destination of a completed poem or story. But, write I must, something for every day in April.



From our back window I watched wind whipping the snow and was struck by how much it reminded me of the ice cream of my youth–the pines were the twisty tops of drippy cones and the drifts like clouds of soft-serve so sweet that she came to mind.

The summer I met her was full of sunburnt days on the beach, nights spent holding soft, warm and sweaty, and empty dishes of runny chocolate and vanilla, tossed aside there in the sand as easily as all those previous summer romances.

The wind breathed cold against a dip out by the oak stump, as if scooping another big plastic spoonful of memory I’d long since let melt away, as I sighed a warm smear of my own feelings of empty dishness against the windowpane.

“What in the world’s so interesting out there in the middle of a blizzard?” Barbara asked, tapping me on the shoulder and breaking my frosty reverie.

“Umm, nothing…but whaddaya say we go out and get ourselves a sundae or something?”  I said, brushing a strand of gray behind her ear and hugging her close, soft, warm and dry.

Ten minutes of first-draft Five Sentence Fiction combining Lillie McFerrin’s prompt FROZEN with my dear friend Heather Grace Stewart’s new Take Ten Thursday feature at her blog, Where the Butterflies Go. Heather’s photo prompt is at the top of this almost-story.  Maybe it’s a prose poem. If it is, then I won’t feel so stupid linking it to Sam Peralta’s call for them at dVerse.

Friday, the 22nd

Cronkite announcing the death of President Ken...

Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There we were. Sheila and Kathy, smug in their green uniform jumpers, and I with my little clip-on St. Patrick’s Institute tie, the peak of eleven-year old intelligentsia, pitting our burly, burgeoning cerebra against one another and the English language in a battle over who could correctly align letters into concepts that would register as building blocks of discourse in futures irrevocably altered that afternoon by a knock on the classroom door and a whispered exchange between Sister Mary Someone and Mother Superior The Other.

With a face as starkly white and stiffly starched as her wimple—in the middle of calling off the spelling contest, which I was a lock to win, and a throat-catching, out-of-nowhere, low and left Our Father kick-off of a rosary session, something usually reserved for May—Sister told us. All around the classroom, the kids wrestled with confused tangles of thoughts and rosary beads because this was November, a week until Thanksgiving, another odd weekday stuffed with prayer, and Presidents never were shot.

Then the girls began to cry. Staring dully at his desktop, Dennis Mullin turned his dark face sideways to me in its usual position of conspiratorial whisper. This time he breathed a confused statement of a boy of twelve’s coming to his best conclusion, “There’s gonna be a war.”

And, sure enough, there were wars to follow, some of us even grotesquely baptized in them, but not over this. Not a shoooting one, at least. Just wars of jockeying conspiracies Dennis would never dream in his most imaginative moments. These wars were fought with tawdry syllogisms that would arc over the horizon, blaze for a second and then fall to darkness, fewer and fewer over the next half-century.

The nuns sent us home to weepy moms only a few minutes earlier than usual that Friday, after they received word the President had died. They followed us out of school and I looked back from across Central Avenue and saw their faces, framed in their black veils and habits, shining mostly white in the cold afternoon sun. Most of them clutched tissues to their red noses and eyes as they filed into St. Patrick’s, like it was a Good Friday or something.

And, as would be the case for most of the next fifty years, I wandered around, numb to anything but that calm, cold voice within me poring over the information I’d sucked in. All that night and for the next few days I also listened to Uncle Walter’s sad but consoling voice feed me more news from that wooden box with the window of grainy moving newsprint.

At first I had to wrap my head around the fact a cool young President had been shot and killed by what they said was some sad sack Commie mook with a black eye. And then, on Sunday morning, the only person sitting in front of the TV at the time, I witnessed the very real murder of that mook by a better dressed one who all the cops knew. I even heard one say his name…Jack.

That was all kind of a weird final punctuation for me, really. A period rather than an exclamation mark. Some dark nothing of a Jack killed the even lesser nothing of a guy with three weird first names who they say killed the sparkling Jack with the killer smile and Givenchy-draped wife.


I felt cheated that there would be no fair-is-fair end to the game, like my spelling bee on Friday afternoon. No logical finality where the good guys would eventually win and the bad guys sent to their seats. I know that sounds cold, especially for an eleven-year old, but that weekend the whole world turned very black and white to me, not just what I saw for days and weeks and years thereafter on the TV. Even when we got the color RCA.

I read the next day my Giants lost to the Cardinals by a touchdown in the vacuum of that Sunday. And the newspaper confirmed some new theories I developed over the weekend. First, if I ever was asked to spell it— though I never was— there are two groups of double S’s in a-ss-a-ss-i-n-a-t-i-o-n. And second, the lives of millions of people can drastically change in the time it takes a bullet to fly 265 feet. Or even two.

The newspaper never did run a story about how lives changed for any, or even one, of those sixth-graders in the time it took to open a softly knocked door.

So I do.

Picking Up the Blitz

In-game screenshot of a player playing on defe...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Five Sentence Fiction

“How is he, Sandy,” Ed Barrone asked his wife, “did Eddie go to pieces?”

“He came in from school, went right to his room and closed the door, didn’t want dinner, hasn’t made a sound all evening, so I think not making the football team has just crushed him, Ed,” Sandy said.

“Must be tough on the poor kid when his best friend’s the star quarterback, the guy who convinced him to try out, and now Eddie’s gonna have to face Ben and all his friends as a…as a…well, he must feel like he was blind-sided,” Ed said.

Sandy crossed the room to the base of the stairs and called, “Eddie, Dad’s home,” but once again was met with silence and she turned her plaintive brown eyes to her husband, who squared his shoulders and slowly trudged up to his son’s room.

Ed paused at the door, before knocking because he thought he heard laughing within, and then the sound of Eddie whispering into his video game headset, “That’s 25 games in a row, Mr. Starting QB…I don’t think you’ll ever win a game if you suck this bad at Madden.”

Someday, maybe I’ll write something more directly related to the prompt put up by my friend Lillie McFadden for one of her Five Sentence Fiction challenges. Naaaaaah, probably not. Today’s word: Pieces.