Grady Chambers

Blue Handgun

All year I felt I was preparing for something.

A man passed me on the street
saying something in your face
makes me want to hurt you.

There was a spider on my bedroom wall—when I crushed it
something clicked.

I thought:
if it were bigger—
if it had left a greater mess.

Its legs
made a smeared trace
against the wall,

The sound was them breaking.

When I was seven I watched a man crawl across the lawn
away from my father. No crowbar, no blood
that I remember—the scene is grey
except for the black fence
where we chained the black Labrador. Grey, and no blood
but the man’s face, it’s twisted
as he crawls—what a dog’s jaw might do
to a sneaker.

For nights after I’d killed it
I woke and shined a light
on what the spider’s legs
had left.

          Bloodless, crusted—

by day I studied it—

          scentless, erasable—

the wishbone stain—

I went to bars. From the bathroom, I could hear the men
laughing in the other room.

I could smell the piss
in the warmth, the floors

black as the back of a beetle. I liked it, the smell

like the smell of the dirt floor
in my father’s basement.

Down there,
saws had lined the walls.

There’d been a place for each,
an outline down to teeth
where the tool fit perfectly.

The street was Magnolia, and there’d been two men,
not one. One stood by the idling car
while a sound trickled
from the mouth
of his friend.

There were pale prints in the grass
where the man’s hands and knees
had pressed,

He crawled—
he rose—
he was choking—
he held a hand
around his throat.

What brought them back?
I couldn’t say.

Spilled food—
bare wires

from the unlit
Citgo sign—

small things
frightened me.

My backpack knocked
a man’s shoulder
on the subway—
he stared at me so long
I looked away.

I remembered Latin class,
the calendar of sunsets,
the disappointed teacher
reaching beneath his desk,

the blue handgun
my mind kept taped there.

I keep looking for the lesson.
My father is the tower.
I am only seven.
The lawn the long plain
leading to the castle.
The castle is the house.
The banisters are catapults.
The men, I know,
are meant to be extinguished.
I watch through my hands
as they approach.

What, in the end,
was done to me?


the men drove off,
the sun has bleached
the spider’s stain,
my father cupped
the back of my head,
led me inside—

but something,

for I dream them
grown thinner, their prints
limping alone
across the lawn.

For weeks after,
through the bedroom window,
I could see them.

Who, my mother asked?
She didn’t understand.

I meant the men. Every one is them.



On my eleventh birthday my sister gave me a pin.
It was small—light in weight as a charm
on a child’s neck—and so thin
as to be indiscernible.
That was the year Mrs. Bergen explained to me
a penny dropped from the tallest building in the city
could split open a sidewalk. My sister had slipped
and snapped her arm falling from the jungle gym
and this was, I suppose,
the teacher’s way of trying to comfort me.
It didn’t. It snowed. I worried. I pictured the bone
being pulled from her arm like an arrow
from a sheath, a new one
slid into its place. I noticed the new attention
she received at school and tracked it back
to the day she fell: a circle of boys
had huddled over something
on the ground. I’d pushed through
to where she lay, curled up
and covered in woodchips,
like they’d been burying her.
It was in those months that I began to wear the pin.
When I couldn’t sleep, I held it
like a talisman. I told it everything
that scared me.
There was a time, of course,
when the events I have just described
were more or less forgotten: the bone healed,
then lengthened. We grew up. She moved
to a different city. Pictures of her life
flashed across my screen: a skyline
seen from a balcony; someone’s shadow
overlapping her own. A country road,
a fire pit, a horse, the ocean. She felt far from me,
and was.

Perhaps it is that distance that brought it back,
the day the saw peeled off the cast
like a skin, the new arm emerging
thin and sickly, paler
than the other. It seemed a part of her
that hadn’t been there before.
What I can say is that the fixed year between us
seemed to grow. A letter was passed to me
by a high school boy
to give to her. The tank top
we used to share was left folded
on my pillow. My own behavior became

peculiar to me. I crushed a bird
beneath the wheel of my bicycle.
I called my sister over to watch it
drag itself into the garden.
What it was I didn’t know, but I saw it
in the flushed soft faces of the girls ascending
from the basement showers
after gym glass, damp stains
where their wet braids had fallen
on their shoulders. I saw it in Assembly,
the way Sasha Lavotnick's hand would drift
and trace the outline of the straps
showing through the shirt of the girl beside her.
It was so delicate I understood
a boy would never be allowed
to touch a girl in that way,
and wouldn't think to.
Noon meant recess. On the huge field, drained
by winter, we stood like tribes:
girls circled together with girls;
the boys drew lines for games.
In our corner, a centerfold of a famous actress
passed between our hands. One night, Bobby Richmond
asked me to mimic the woman’s position
on the edge of his bed. I lay down;
his mother was asleep.

After, we stood at his window
watching traffic pass
on the road below. We spoke,
I remember, about wanting to be older.

I live now in two small rooms—a kitchen
and a place to sleep. Outside: the yard,
a high blank wall, a small section of sky.

The pin, always fragile,
bent some time ago.
I have made a place for it
on scraps of old fabric
on the stand beside my bed.
I think of a city; my sister disappearing
down the subway steps.
Holding her umbrella; the wind
of the train lifting her hair.

The winter the bone broke
we found a trunk of shawls
in the attic, the fabric thin and worn, almost weightless.
When our mother came to find us,
we sat with our backs turned,
wrapped in the cold dark silks,
pretending we were very old women
who had lived there all along.

She asked our names. We’d forgotten.
Stiff beneath the cloak, in its cast,
my sister's arm looked thick as a statue's.
When our mother asked us
where her children were,
we stifled our laughter.
We said, You have none.


Grady Chambers is the author of North American Stadiums, selected by Henri Cole as the winner of the 2018 Max Ritvo Prize and forthcoming in June 2018 from Milkweed Editions. He was a 2015-2017 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, and his poems have appeared in Forklift, Ohio; New Ohio Review; Ninth Letter; Midwestern Gothic; The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. His writing has received support from the Norman Mailer Center, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and Syracuse University, where he earned his MFA. He lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia, PA.