The Ditch

In the ditch, half-ton sections of cast-iron molds
hand-greased at the seams with pale petroleum waste
and screw-clamped into five-hundred-gallon cylinders
drummed with rubber-headed sledges inside and out
to settle tight the wet concrete
that, dried and caulked, became Monarch Septic Tanks;
and, across the ditch, my high school football coach,
Don Compo, spunky pug of a man,
bronze and bald, all biceps and pecs,
raging at some “attitude” of mine
he snipped from our argument about Vietnam—
I mean raging, scarlet, veins bulging from his neck,
he looked like a hard-on stalking back and forth—
but I had started college, this was a summer job,
I no longer had to take his self-righteous, hectoring shit,
so I was chuckling merrily, saying he was ludicrous,
and he was calling me “College Man Ryan”
and, with his steel-toed workboot, kicking dirt
that clattered against the molds and puffed up between us.

It’s probably not like this anymore, but every coach
in my hometown was a lunatic. Each had different quirks
we mimicked, beloved bromides whose parodies we intoned,
but they all conducted practice like boot camp,
the same tirades and abuse, no matter the sport,
the next game the next battle in a neverending war.
Ex-paratroopers and -frogmen, at least three
finally convicted child molesters, genuine sadists
fixated on the Commie menace and our American softness
that was personally bringing the country to the brink of collapse—
in this company, Don Compo didn’t even seem crazy.
He had never touched any of us;
his violence was verbal, which we were used to,
having gotten it from our fathers
and given it back to our brothers and one another
since we had been old enough to button our own pants.
Any minute—no guessing what might trigger it—
he could be butting your face mask and barking up your nostrils,
but generally he favored an unruffled, moralistic carping,
in which I, happy to spot phoniness,
saw pride and bitterness masquerading as teaching.
In the locker room, I’d sit where I could roll my eyeballs
as he droned, but, across the ditch,
he wasn’t lecturing, but fuming, flaring
as I had never seen in four years of football,
and it scared and thrilled me to defy him and mock him
when he couldn’t make me handwash jockstraps after practice
or do pushups on my fingertips in a mud puddle.

But it was myself I was taunting. I could see my retorts
snowballing toward his threat to leap the ditch
and beat me to a puddle of piss (“you craphead,
you wiseass”), and my unspading a shovel from a dirt pile
and grasping its balance deliberately down the handle
and inviting him to try it.
Had he come I would have hit him,
There’s no question about that.
For a moment, it ripped through our bewilderment,
which then closed over again
like the ocean
if an immense cast-iron mold were dropped in.
I was fired when the boss broke the tableau.
“The rest of you,” he said, “have work to do,”
and, grabbing a hammer and chisel, Don Compo
mounted the mold between us in the ditch
and with one short punch split it down the seam.

Michael Ryan, “The Ditch” from New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Source: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)
More Poems by Michael Ryan