Old Playfellow

Noel Sloboda

Old Playfellow

When I answer the door, I am startled to find
The Fire King smoldering before me.
Decades have passed since he first flitted about
At the edges of my mind. My mother warned me:
Keep away from open flames; they have consumed
Far better men than you. But, as with so much,
I did not listen to her. I felt sure The Fire King would grant
My red wishes. I kept a Zippo in my pocket
For years, torched bad report cards, detention slips,
Valentines from girls judged beneath me,
Birthday cards from grandparents deemed lame,
Father’s beloved sports pages, my sister’s secret diary—
All sacrificed to the god of cinders. I loved
How he whispered questions I could not answer.
Why would anyone bother to worship
An invisible element like air? How do people know
If something is too hot if they don’t try it first? Who will care
About your mistakes after everyone has returned to ash?
Now his belly jangles, as if loaded with bottle rockets,
And he fills the doorframe, bigger than I remember.
Red-hot like a fever, he singes the tips of my eyebrows;
I smell wool crisping as his feet burn holes in my doormat.
I look for the wicked grin I aped throughout my teens,
But his features appear flat as those on a death mask.
As he opens his mouth, smoke rolls out—
Yet I do not wait for his words; I already know
I have grown too old, too brittle, too combustible,
To aid him in his mission to melt away
Every hard edge and angle in this world.
So I smother him with questions raised in years
Since our time together: What is the name
Of that beautiful dance you perform with the wind,
Making you both swirl with pure abandon?
Why do you fight the darkness whenever it appears? 
Who wrote the lullaby you hum in winter
When settled in a hearth? Without answering,
He turns away, and I cannot tell if he seethes
Or shrugs before he glides up the street to call
Upon one of countless other past devotees
Who might kneel again at his altar.
_____________

Noel Sloboda is the author of the poetry collections Shell Games (sunnyoutside, 2008) and Our Rarer Monsters (sunnyoutside, 2013) as well as several chapbooks, most recently Our Cardenio (Medusa’s Laughter Press, 2018). He has also published a book about Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. Sloboda teaches at Penn State York.

Author’s Comments/Backstory:  “As a kid, back when I felt invulnerable, I often behaved recklessly, sometimes destructively. And although I was never a firebug, I had a friend who loved to set things ablaze, in the woods, on playgrounds, you name the place. (He’s since become a responsible, well-adjusted member of society.) It wasn’t too much of a stretch to personify what was behind our boyish foolishness as The Fire King. He is a figure that recalls the abundant but wanton energy of youth. In the doldrums of middle-age, this is something that I occasionally miss—though it is more often something that I am relieved to be without because I know not only how perilous it can be but also how fragile I am. As I look around today, however, I find folks of all ages ready to listen to The Fire King, seemingly unaware of how quickly he will burn them up.”

Editor’s Notes: A man in silhouette (favpng.com) is superimposed on an abstract through colored glass with sunlight through a kitchen window (Becca Lavin/unsplash.com).In the audio recording, the poem is read by Clark Nicholson.

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