Photo by Mahir Velani on Unsplash

Unconditional

“Glint of metal, man threat
Woman screaming
Central Park, evening
He, on his way
Home from work
Scales a boundary wall
Wrestles away the knife
Calms with earnest speech
Leaves them behind
Tended by osmotically bold
Rebound bystanders

(The next week
Same place
Same time
Same scene enacted
Same players
This time
He walks on past)

That is what, about him
We all tell first
Next his running blocks
To (red light) overtake a car
And return a purse
The driver had left
On her trunk

But to me
What was most compelling
About Frank’s best friend
(As about Frank himself)
Was more fundamental
Than do good intervention:
That wellspring, that fountain
Of kindness overflowing
Inundating his vicinity
With that optimistic, generous
Conviction of goodness
Rightness, possibility
In whoever stood before him
In people, in mankind
Rooted
Unshakeable”

“As when a woman
Beautiful, fancy free
Going by, turns heads
They were like magnets
Both of them
Majestically humble
They drew after them
Hopes and dreams
Loves and wishes

Like clematis in summer
Or camellia in winter
Like bare cherry branches
Force bloomed in indoor vases
They were both profuse
In nonstop flower
Everyone, we all
Wanted to be near them
Exult in their colors
Stealthily pick a flower
All our own
It was a privilege to spend
With either of them
An hour, an evening”

“Best friends?
Hardly
They barely talked
Once Steve moved to Boston
Though it couldn’t have
Been just the distance
Only four hours
Something happened
Between them
Don’t you think
And aren’t you two
Being a little hoity-toity
Sure, they were both
Nice and kind
But still people
Sometimes irritable
Sometimes foolish
Different from one another

Frank, at least
Could be busy
Set limits
Had some iron in him
He didn’t let swindlers
Get away with much
He was kind
And he was fair
But he was objective, moral
Had expectations
The other—less”

“Still they both
(Absent confidence?)
Married early
And happily
Lived first
In the same building
Then mere blocks apart
In the Bronx

And their sons
Remember
They had the first two
In our crowd
We all had to hold them
So lovely
So bright
So much promise
‘Nature’s answer to Hitler’
We used to say
Still, later

Something clearly did go wrong
With Steve’s kids at least
They somehow lacked buoyancy
Never found their way
I always wondered why
Nicest men I ever met
Steve and Frank”

“See, that’s what I was saying
They grew apart
And love
At least the unconditional kind
Is overrated
‘Listen kid,’ Frank’s Jane
(My best friend
I do know from best friends)
Used to say
And I knew
Though childless myself then
(Learned the hard way since again)
She was right to be tough
To chasten them
Mold them, hold them accountable
We all need expectations
Adversity
Maybe Steve’s brood
Had too little
His Bess was too soft
Too nurtury
Next thing you know
There were cults
Alcohol
Refusals to finish school
To work for someone else
Then came the poor choices
Broken hearts
Broken promises
Marriages
Lives
Steve was
I can say it now
Even more beautiful than Frank
A fabulous friend
But a terrible father
I’d like to be wrong
So please
Tell me
How else to explain it“

“Genes, chance, peers
Bess’ death at 40
Take, on my block
In childhood
The Blairs
Nine sons
Eight dropouts
And one a neurosurgeon
There was nothing
Wrong with Steve
He struggled
Every day to cheer
Each person he met
Left the world
Far better than he found it

Something beautiful
Something we didn’t fully understand
Died with the two of them
Maybe it was his children
He was wonderful
With other people’s children”

“Maybe so
But these are facts
They both had three kids
Frank’s all did well
Steve’s all did not
Science aside
You all know
In your hearts
Much as we loved him
Steve got that
At least a little
Wrong
That’s how it looks to me
Metal, scream”

Poems oversimplify
It was
Always is
More complicated
Than these old friends
Suggest
Steve married twice
His second wife had a son
By a short prior marriage
So Steve brought up
A fourth child
From the age of five
Who had more worldly success
(But less of his benevolence)
Than any
Of the crowd’s other children
And the third child
Conceived with the second wife
Had sufficient resilience
Made a satisfactory life

Though the conflict
And it’s parsing
Does remain
As stark and problematic
As they proposed

Were they best friends?
How/when/where did they meet?
What, if anything
Estranged them?
What did they do in the war?
We never asked
Now no one alive seems to know





Alan Cohen has been composing poems for decades. He was poetry editor of his high school magazine; edited The Beast in a Cage of Words, a book of poems about nuclear weapons, in 1985; had a poem in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1977, one in The Road Not Taken in 2017, and has just this month had five accepted in The Adelaide Literary Magazine and one in The Wild Word. He is a retired physician, teacher and primary care manager. He has been married to Anita for 40 years and they live in Eugene, Oregon.

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