The Faith of a Centurion

Fall of ‘sixty-seven. Lit. 101.
Three sessions late, he struts
in. A carbuncular scar like
a zigzag L slices his face.

Booze on his breath, he chooses
a desk in the right back
corner. In a Zurbaran,
the boy Jesus plays at making

a crown. When he pricks his finger
on a thorn, Mary’s bright eyes
mourn for him that morning
as she will weep by noon

at the foot of the cross. Larry,
Guy, Brett, Kelly, then
John — all vets just back
from Vietnam. But only

John’s eyes, bleak blue,
look at me as if he’s always
in mourning. After the semester
is through, he leaves Coltrane’s

A Love Supreme propped
against the door of my ramshackle
cottage. Every night
I listen to that LP.

Uninvited, he brings his girls
by. None of them lasts long.
He makes out with Suzie
on my couch, not so drunk

he can’t get aroused but tight
enough not to care I watch.
The bar he likes best is blocks
from my cottage, a place to crash

when the SAE house is too far
to walk to. If I forget to leave
my door unlocked, he pounds
on it until I let him in.

Twice, he rips through a screen
and breaks a window. I bandage
his hand and cover him with
a blanket where he lies on the floor.

Good Friday that year,
he insists I attend mass
with him. Next to the altar,
the priest has placed on a gold

stand a reliquary of the true
cross. John whispers, If all
the slivers taken from that tree
displayed in churches round the globe

were glued together they’d repopulate
the forests we’ve poisoned and burned
in Nam. Yet he prostrates himself
in adoration. After a matinee

of Bonnie and Clyde, he nurses
an ale at Nick’s Saloon and talks
about fighting for the whites
in Rhodesia. Of the movie, he says,

At least they know what it looks
like when you shoot a man.
Late April, after dating her two
weeks, he marries Sarah

Somebody. Before summer,
they divorce. When one of his frat
brothers calls him a fag,
he drives his fist through a plaster

wall, breaking three fingers
and a thumb. Stumble-down
drunk, he still is wearing the splint
on his hand as he kicks at my door,

his t-shirt filthy with crud.
I haul him in and hide upstairs.
At first light, he walks straight
from the shower into my bedroom,

the sunshine like mist or steam
gleaming off his untoweled body.
More broken letters than I had seen
scar his knees, thigh, hip, butt.

I loan him a new shirt.
He abandons his own for me
to dispose of, though I know
he knows I won’t or can’t.

Spring of ‘seventy-three. Hand
in hand, he and his girlfriend
or wife are hiking up the steps
toward my hilltop house

in San Francisco. I don’t have
to see his scarred face
to know it’s John, only his strut,
his starlet blond hair,

his curiously boyish bum.
Just fifty feet behind them,
I wait until they’ve reached
my door before I turn down

the hill to linger in a North Beach
bar until I’m sure he really
has gone for good and won’t
ever return. One night,

when we were both tight,
when I couldn’t guess the answer,
John told me how many
pieces of shrapnel still lodged

in his flesh. Thirteen, he said.
It felt like a thorn or better yet
a splinter of the true cross
had been forced beneath

a fingernail, he said, then
plunged so deep in his body
no human had the wits
or guts to knife it out.

number 22 in the 2River Chapbook Series