(for Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”)
By Bret Anthony Johnston
Twist your fist when you connect and tear the other man’s skin; aim for the bridge of his nose, his throat; if there’s something heavy to swing–a pipe or board–pick it up before he does and lay him out; drive a truck with a manual transmission; carry a knife, sharpen the blade on wet stone; when buying cedar for a fence, look for knots and warps in the wood; when your son grabs an asp on a tallow limb, take the chewing tobacco from your mouth and press it to the sting; open doors for women and pay them compliments as they pass; make eye contact like a man and not like the coward you’re so bent on becoming; this is how you drive a nail; this is how you hitch a trailer and change a tire; this is how you run a horse; this is how you clean its hooves; always watch the other man’s chest, not his deceitful head; the chest can’t feign; is it true you cried when the tow-headed boy whipped you?; mow the yard in the morning and water at night; when a dog is dying, don’t hassle with the vet; feed him fried hamburger until he stops eating, then carry him into the cotton field; this is how you load a pistol; this is how you fire a pistol; this is how you clean the barrel after a pistol’s been fired; but he didn’t whip me and I didn’t cry; eat steak with yellow mustard, the same with biscuits; this is how you walk with a woman; this is how you make jambalaya; this is how you check Freon in an air-conditioner; this is how you hang a door and blow in an acoustic ceiling and cheat at cards and pawn your tools; join the army, then the coast guard, then the navy and try to avoid becoming the coward you’re so hell bent on becoming, then take the civil service job on the base and look for overtime; carry cash, the bills facing forward; tuck in your shirts; never pay that much for a shirt again; the night before garbage day, drive your truck through the Ocean Drive neighborhoods, scouting what others have thrown out that can still be used; never throw out anything anyone else can use; know the difference between good and good enough; never settle; when you do settle, never complain; this is how you fold the flag; this is how you tie a bowline; this is how you pick a lock; keep a card in your wallet listing her dress size and birthday and your anniversary; carve with the blade away from your body; kill the lights when you leave a room; this is how you stop a leak with a piece of bread; this is how you quiet a floor with talcum powder; before buying the truck you want, tell the owner you’re after a car and he’ll drop the price; wear your hair short, you are not a girl; wear black steel-toed boots; always keep your voice low, especially when you’re angry; make the other man lean forward to hear and then crack his deceitful head with yours, the bridge of his nose, and this way he won’t recognize you as the coward I’ve warned you against becoming; this is how you catch snakes; this is how you track deer; work in the sun and sweat and rinse with the garden hose and coil it up; if you have a woman on the side, keep her there; this is how you keep her there; use the truck to haul the lumber for the new fence; use the truck to haul the old fence to the dump; never ask anyone to carry your load; this is how you roof a house; this is how you sweep up after a day’s work; this is how you stay up all night when the horse colics; this is how you hold everything in until it turns to bone; always mow the yard one last time at the end of the summer, run the engine dry, empty the tank; but what if the lawn isn’t high enough?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of man who can’t grow a lawn?
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the fiction collection Corpus Christi. His work has appeared in Ploughshares and The Paris Review and has been anthologized in New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best 2008. He is the director of the creative writing program at Harvard University. His website is bretanthonyjohnston.com.
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