Volume 69, Number 1 · Fall 2019

A Boy

I knocked Jake Brown
to the ground

in eighth grade, kept him there
with words, Get up, retard. A man

is born strong. I dare

you. A boy is meant to stand up.
But Jake wouldn’t. My son Brendan

won’t. Day after day. It hurts to see him
stuck. The report branded

him retarded, slow, stunted,

delayed. Waves of words. In water
I make him

new. Rub spasms
from his back. Come on, Brendan.

Help me. Flat

on his belly, he hugs
the shower’s tiled ground. Ripples

the white curtain. No blood
this time. Just clear streams pearling. I keep

fit. Lift weights so I can lift

him. Kneeling, I raise him slow. Why can’t you
do this on your own?
Soap-slick bird,

my six-year-old boy slips
through my hands. Can you do anything right,

just this once?

Jake’s eyes crossed behind bifocals,
he’d fumbled

my pinpoint pass, tripped
at the rim. My boy stays smaller

than other boys. Still it hurts

to lower myself
to him. I need

more strength. Are you
an idiot?
Words foam

inside. My son looks

away, water streaks
his face, washes

away tears, his mouth
bitter with Dove suds, words

that never roll off

his tongue. Sissy. Jake lost us
the game. You play

like a girl. Behind the veil
our shadows. In steam I tell myself

words cannot hurt, droplets

soothe my mouth, run down my chest
onto Brendan’s back.

Four years ago, I told the doctor,
my voice raised, Don’t use

that word. The shower stream grows

cold, I am naked
and shivering. Stupid boy.

I want to believe
in him. It was just

a report. Jake’s bifocals cracked,

he pissed
his Toughskins. Moron. More than

a word. Sprawled like Jake
on pavement, my son spreads out

his arms, little wings

spanning the damp
expanse. My feet sank

into wet grass. Jake ran from us,
sandy hair whipping

his freckles. Sorry, Daddy

doesn’t mean it when he yells.
Because he’s my boy,

it’s my fault. I need new
words. Broken bird. Fierce

starling. My hands pat him dry, smooth

his hair. It shines
like feathers. One skinny leg

kicks out.
His hands search

the wall,

push me away
to lift off alone,

stand up to me
just this once.

Brian Komei Dempster’s debut book of poems, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), received the 15 Bytes 2014 Book Award in Poetry. His second poetry collection, Seize, was published by Four Way Books in fall 2020. Dempster is editor of From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps (Kearny Street Workshop, 2001), which received a 2007 Nisei Voices Award from the National Japanese American Historical Society, and Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement (Heyday, 2011). He is a professor of rhetoric and language at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as Director of Administration for the Master of Arts in Asia Pacific Studies program.