A Big Ball Of Foil In A Small NY Apartment
It will flame out.... --Hopkins
It began with a single sheet, leftover from his lunch.
His unthinking palm had reached out to it, slapped down
on the center of it, and begun gathering and compacting
until soon he had a small firm ball in his fist.
He squeezed the ball tightly, as tightly as he could.
Now the ball was, if not as firm as possible,
at least as firm as he could easily make it,
and he took from this the small satisfaction it offered.
It felt good. In fact, as his fingers opened out
into their individual selves again, and he saw the ball
resting in his slightly red, dented palm, as in a nest,
it occurred to him that there were many good things
to be felt about this ball: its crinkled surface
would keep it from rolling off at the slightest tilt;
it wouldn't come undone on it own as balled-up paper can;
and that it was all crumpled foil, 100% through
seemed to contain a kind of meaning,
(though truly what it was he wasn't sure)....
It was then that he had an idea. Like light on water
it danced across his thinking, absorbing his attention.
He would add to this ball, add to it until it was huge!
He wouldn't throw it out as he had so many others.
And how many had he thrown out? The unknowable number
(exaggerated for effect) jostled him all over, like nerves,
for you see, he had already begun to imagine the ball quite large,
and the thought that the foil in his little ball
might have existed as a nearly flat sheet on the surface
of an already enormous ball boggled him.
(But he knew it wasn't good to think like that,
and he snapped quickly to, nodding and determined.)
He would grow the ball from this point forward.
Foil was everywhere. It wouldn't be hard.
So from that day on as he walked the streets,
although he let his thoughts drift as they wished,
(seeing, for instance, the sun seep free from behind a cloud
he'd think, in the brief spell before it disappeared behind another,
of hundreds of suddenly pleased sunbathers in rows on a beach;
he'd think of sweaty red-faced men carrying heavy wooden crates)
he kept his sights always alive to the prospect
of foil's particular glint. When he'd see a stranded sheet
in a corner garbage can or on a restaurant table,
he'd glance sharply about, to see if anyone was watching him,
slyly pocket it, then shuffle off at a quickened pace.
Early on, it bothered him, and he'd have to reassure himself:
"No one is looking; no one cares; this city is full
of stranger things than a man collecting foil."
Over time, he began to believe this truth, or rather,
the shame he couldn't help but feel was overcome.
For there was nothing much better than walking about,
as twilight approached, with a good take bulging his pockets.
It was a feeling not unlike knowing a wonderful secret,
or being, perhaps, a bottle with a message in it.
However, at such bright excited times,
much like an island surfacing in a drought-sucked stream,
the ball as he wished it could be, huge and shining
and exactly round, would give rise in his mind.
It was awesome and beautiful, but not a good thing,
and he tried to keep it from happening, to hide it away,
like that heart under the floorboards in the Poe story
that had so terrified him as a child. For his own ball
when he'd return home, became so inadequate then,
so silly and lopsided and small. Emptying his pockets,
smoothing the foil with a rolling pin (his system),
he'd murmur sound, sobering sayings to himself like:
"nothing turns out the way you thought it would,"
and "it'll take years." But time was one thing he had,
and his progress, albeit slow (as each added scrap was a smaller
and smaller piece of the growing whole) was steady.
As the months went by, the ball grew. It grew and grew.
It grew until it had to be moved from the oven,
where he'd kept it to save space, into the open, onto the floor.
It grew till it couldn't fit through the window or the door.
It grew until furniture had to be moved, first
to new places in his apartment, then out onto the street.
It was then he knew the ball was there to stay....
But though he'd been the one that had wanted the ball,
though he'd been the one that had built the ball,
often he felt ambivalently, and this ambivalence grew too.
Why was he doing what he was?
Why was he filling his apartment, his mind, with foil?
It was not something he preferred to wonder about,
and he tried hard to keep the wondering out, to ignore it
as one might a dog that's scratching at a door....
But ridiculous as he acknowledged the ball to be,
if you were to have caught him at the right moment,
you would have seen how he loved it.
Certain nights, after he'd measured it in all directions
(by setting up a spotlight and measuring the shadows)
then peeled and patched it to preserve its roundness,
(the ball's defining, so most important quality)
he'd step away (as away as he still could),
and those narrowed-up, fault-inventing eyes of his
would soften into something like appreciation.
Spot-lit like that, the ball gave back a cool, fragile light
much as he heard the earth did when seen by astronauts,
and he'd feel suddenly lucky to be where he was,
standing in such strange and silvery shine. Coming to,
he'd often find an inch of ash on his cigarette....
So it was kind of sad then, that his ball should end,
should stop growing, even though all along
it'd been what he'd been working towards.
Would he still see a city speckled with foil?
Or would what once was treasure dull
to trash again? There was no way to predict.
The night he was done, the night the ball
nudged up against his ceiling and his walls
(a coincidence so long foreseen it had lost its luster)
he pressed his teeth deep into its surface,
as a kind of unreadable signature,
leaned his confused body against it, closed his eyes,
and, listening to the cars pass, wept a little bit.
--from Like That
PROMPT: Begin a long-ish poem (3-7 pages) with “It began with a single ______...,” as in Matthew Yeager’s “A Big Ball of Foil in A Small NY Apartment.” Make sure the single object/item the character starts with is something mundane and every day, but make it magical, make it larger than it could ever possibly be, redefine its capabilities in the lines that follow. Compose the poem in a single large stanza (utilizing parentheticals for asides) and in the third person. And have fun. This should be a weird one!
BIO: Matthew Yeager's first collection of poems, Like That, was published by Forklift_Books in 2016. His poems have appeared in Sixthfinch, Gulf Coast, Bat City Review, and elsewhere, as well as Best American Poetry 2005 and Best American Poetry 2010. His short film "A Big Ball of Foil in a Small NY Apartment" was an official selection at eleven film festivals in 2009-2010, picking up three awards. Other distinctions include the Barthelme Prize in short prose and two MacDowell fellowships. The co-curator of the long running KGB Monday Night Poetry Series, he has worked in the NY catering industry for thirteen years in various capacities: truck driver, waiter, sanitation helper, sanitation captain, bartender, bar captain, and lead captain. A native of Cincinnati, OH, his interests include 18th century American history, fingerpicking, the Cincinnati Bengals, and creative carpentry. His first book is Like That from Forklift Books. He lives with his wife, the poet Chelsea Whitton, in Ridgewood, Queens. Their cat is Puck.