My Lanyard

As a boy I had no idea what to do with my hands.
At Camp Hastings YMCA camp,
where the director each night
must have known the white boys
from the suburbs needed soul
played Mahalia Jackson’s
“The Lord’s Prayer” after taps.
Her deep voice carried over acres
of campground to our cabins
and to our hands reaching in the dark
for the mystery of our sex.
In daylight a counselor
had me take plastic lacing and weave
them, put a top lace over another,
pull it tight until it formed a perfect square,
doing it over and over
like the older boys in the cabin
each night made the same guttural moans
as they wove desire into the shape
of their dreams.
But for me
prepubescent under no spell of wanting,
it was this making something out of
green and white lacing, this pulling
all sides of the plastic lacing on the lanyard
to make it tight when I finished each lace.
This first thing I’d made
with my hands, the knot pulled tight,
no lacing twisted, I finished off
with a Turk’s Head knot
and a hook to hold a whistle
that wove my life together.

I wore it around my neck
for years, took it off every night, and hung
it by my bed before I said my prayers,
making sure God took care
of Mom and Dad and my brother
and my teacher and Cub Scout leader
and Chip and Stevie and even Nancy.

The lanyard kept everyone alive,
held them all in place at the darkest hours.
I was sure of it as I was sure of my fingers.
If I failed to wear it,
even one day, the world as I knew it would disappear—
my mother would die, the house would be
empty, none of the streets would be
streets I knew, the whole visible world,
the Rice Krispies cereal, the milk on
the doorstep in the morning, even
the apple tree in the backyard—
all of it would vanish if the lanyard
wasn’t around my neck.
It became worn,
the green peeling off like a scab,
the weave, once taut, loosened.
Friends claimed I was a dork.
One morning in a hurry
I left it hanging on the chair in my room.
By evening it was gone. Mom
told me it was time to give it up.

The world as I knew it
was still there the next morning as alert
as the sun that came in the window.
My hands, older
and more inquisitive found other things
to keep them busy, things softer, smoother
than the lacing that once charmed me
into an almost religion of having
each knot in place, each a woven
measure of my own making.

A former poet laureate of Portland, Bruce has published five books of poems, two chapbooks, and two novels, one that came out last year, Those Close Beside Me. He lives in Candler, North Carolina, having moved down here from Maine where he lived for 43 years.