The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Floyd Skloot

Chris Cagle is Dead




I spread my old-time All-American

football cards in T-formation

on my parents' bedroom floor as they dress

for dinner with friends.

Now playing quarterback:

Little Frankie Albert!

He throws a pass into the hall

where Bill Daddio makes a leaping catch

and laterals to Choo-Choo Charlie Justice

by the antique chest of drawers!


I love to say the players' names

and sometimes if he's in a good mood

ask my father what they do now.

He always knows.

Whizzer White is a lawyer

and Johnny Lujack sells Chevys.

Beattie Feathers is a coach down south.

Cotton Warburton makes movies in Hollywood.


But tonight my father paces while he ties

and re-ties his Windsor knot,

no longer even speaking to my mother

about how late

she will make them again.

He stops long enough to find

his cufflinks, rattles them like dice in his palm.


My mother lights

another Chesterfield and glares

at him in her mirror. So I begin

picking up my cards.

As my father passes, I reach out

to show him my new favorite.

He slaps it to the floor.

Chris Cagle is dead.






The back of his card says he was a bolt

of lightning: Fast, dangerous, Army's best

broken field runner ever. Nicknamed Red,

the fiery Cagle thought a helmet slowed

him down. If he had to wear one, he kept

the chin strap loose. Loved to hit and be hit.






I still don't know where I am.

I still don't know what happened

but my brother says he'll give me

another concussion if I ask again.


It's dark and he's in his bed

watching Have Gun--Will Travel.

I can't imagine how

it could be Saturday night.


My head hurts.

There's a scab forming on my lower lip

in the shape of my upper teeth.

There are too many pillows on my bed.


The last thing I remember

is returning to the school bus

because we'd come to the wrong field.

No marching band, no fans, no opponents.

I shuffle among my teammates in our dark

blue uniforms, wind whishing through

my helmet's ear holes, cleats clattering

across the blacktop. Then the bus starts


and I wake up in my bed

across the room from my brother

unable to decide if the sound

of gunfire comes from the television

or inside my head. My brother looks

at me, sighs and agrees

to tell me what happened

one last time.


He says I took a hard hit to the head

returning the opening kickoff

and later in the quarter made open

field tackles on four straight plays.

From the bleachers he could see

I was woozier after each play,

staggering back to my position, shaking

my head. He was making his way

down to alert the coach 

as the fifth play began.

He says he vaulted the fence

and ran to me. He says he covered

my convulsing body with his.






I sit on a bench in the locker room

wrapping my ankles in tape.

Then I step into a girdle of hip

and tailbone pads, lacing them tight.

I slip thigh and knee pads into slots

on my pants, then reach my arms

through straps on shoulder pads,

and adjust a pair of elbow pads.

I put on my helmet, snap the chin strap,

adjust the face mask, stuff a mouth guard

in place. Beside me, my best friend

Jay slaps the sides and top of my helmet

bing bang boom and we walk

toward Saturday morning light

funneling through the field house doors.


I remember the whistle blew the play dead.

I remember stopping beside a pile

of players at midfield and then I remember

waking up on the ground without feeling

in my fingers or toes. I wanted to get up.

The referee began blowing his whistle again,

screaming late hit late hit as he threw down

a penalty flag and Jay knelt beside me.

I remember his helmet coming into view,

black stripes under his eyes and his voice

telling me not to move.


My mother said If your father were alive

to see this again. She said that first time

he had nightmares you'd be a vegetable

the rest of your life, God forbid. She didn't say

I killed him with worry but she might as well.

You, young man, are lucky to be alive.


Next year, she tore up the permission form.

No more football! I spent that season

working in a butcher's freezer cutting beef

and pork I'd hauled from delivery trucks,

pretending I was tackling them for a loss.






The night after Christmas, two men found

Cagle on hands and knees at the bottom

of a staircase in the Broadway-Nassau

subway station. He said his head hurt.


He was thirty-seven but looked fifty

as he sat between them on the train,

sober but slurring his words, telling them

every time the car rocked it seemed

he was being kicked in the head.


The next morning his wife took him

to the hospital. Cause of death:

laceration of the brain and a bruise

of the tissues on both sides of the brain.




It's been twenty-eight years

since a neuro-virus found my brain

open to attack. My doctors say

with my history I'm lucky the cognitive

damage is no worse. Lucky to be alive.

When I first saw the scans I thought

my brain looked like cleat-pocked dirt.

At least once a year I dream

I'm standing alone near our end zone

waiting for the kickoff, and the ball

has been tumbling toward me for years

through the air, and I'm aware of my brain

within my skull within my helmet

seeming to throb with knowledge of what

is about to happen as I cradle the ball

at last and begin to run into the fall wind.




FLOYD SKLOOT's recent collections of poetry include The End of Dreams (2006), The Snow's Music (2008), Approaching Winter (2015), and the forthcoming Far West (2019), all from LSU Press. His work has won three Pushcart Prizes, the PEN USA Literary  Award, and two Pacific NW Book  Awards. He lives in Oregon.



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