I’ve dowsed death a few times. Plucked it straight out of the air when I was a kid, like intercepting a pass. Or getting a face full of one. Like when I rolled up late to lacrosse practice to find two dozen boys near-comatose in the dirt and on the bleachers, sucking mouthguard pacifiers. “Who died?” I said. Coach Cooper’s dad, turns out. He died. And Coach Cooper was out there on the field, sitting criss-cross in a goal like he’d just been whipped into the net by a pubescent tweenager looking to prove something, a little white rubber ball trembling in the goalie’s ring. I found out that night Coach Cooper was only twenty-two at the time. I thought nobody at that age could ever lose anything.
Then it was my grandma. I was reading something, this book about an astronomer on a voyage. He spends his nights looking at planets at sea and his days wrapping his head around how anything at all could ever happen on earth. He gets this letter: smallpox took his sister. Or maybe it was the bubonic plague making off with his mother. Either way someone had gone, and I’d looked up, crying, and said as much. That’s when my brother kicked the book out of my hands and into my face and told me the news. It was cancer spiriting away Grandma Pat.
And junior high. My best friend at the time, and maybe ever, though I didn’t know it then. I’d once told her that neither of her parents were there for her birth. It was a line from a cartoon I’d heard the night before. It was supposed to be funny, but I’d forgotten she was adopted. She thought it was funny, anyhow, or at least acted like she did. But I ran up on her at the lockers one day and she had her head inside them like she was Slyvia Plath, just standing there. A woman in a pillory. And I said it again. “Who died?” And you could probably guess it was her mother. Less likely you’d guess it was a UPS truck gone right through the front window of the dentist office where she worked.
I wonder sometimes if I could still do it, just reel in death like a fish. Punch the arcade cabinet and out comes a torrent of tickets. But I won’t test it. I admit that in those days it was a game. I admit that I knew what I was saying, what I was inviting, when I asked my lockered friend the question. I knew, somehow, the answer it’d return. I knew at lacrosse practice and I knew with Grandma Pat. Because there’s something pleasing about a dog coming when it’s called, at least until the dog isn’t yours. Until it holds a bleeding pheasant in its mouth and you can’t say for certain whether it was shot or just plain torn open.
Luke Larkin is an MFA candidate at the University of Montana. His work can be found in places like HAD, No Contact, The Atticus Review, Funicular, Popshot, and others. He lends a hand to the publications CutBank and Unstamatic.
image: Dylan Willoughby: I am a permanently disabled LGBTQIA+ poet and composer, born in London, England and currently living in Long Beach, CA. Chester Creek Press has published 3 limited-edition letterpress poetry chapbooks, with illustrations by the hyper-realist painter Anthony Mastromatteo. My poems have appeared widely in literary magazines including Agenda (UK), Stand (UK), The Interpreter’s House (UK), Shenandoah, Salmagundi, Denver Quarterly, CutBank, Southern Humanities Review, and Green Mountains Review. Recent poems appeared this summer and fall in The Laurel Review, Fahmidan Journal, Goat’s Milk Magazine, Sledgehammer Lit, Sparrow’s Trombone, and Bloom Magazine, and are forthcoming in Amethyst Review and Ample Remains. I have received residency fellowships from Yaddo and MacDowell, and earned an MFA from Cornell University, where I studied with A. R. Ammons and Robert Morgan. My music, as “Lost in Stars,” has been featured by The Los Angeles Times, NPR/PRI program “Echoes,” KCRW (LA NPR station), Entertainment Weekly, NYLON magazine, XLR8R, Insomniac, Earmilk, and many other venues.