Steve Petkus

Pine Row Issue No. 7 Summer 2023 - Featured Poet

The Water

Gallons of lousy beer that summer,

but we could handle extra volume

if the brand was shit

so the call was Olympia.

As for what made Oly’s great,

the cans claimed It’s the Water.

Brian might sit in some hands

on nights we played penny-ante.

They’d found cancer in his throat

at just 11 months, so Brian grew up

with a stoma where his voice box

should’ve been. Learned to speak

by way of burps, his case some sort

of medical first they said. His dad

made this whole video montage.

At twelve, Brian’s left arm

had to go. In the footage

from the local news, he smiles

behind thick tubes, wonders how

he’s going to fish. At poker

Brian drank Hawaiian Punch—

the stronger drugs they were trying,

he didn’t know so well.

I bet wild and drank for two.


Afternoons we might set some Oly’s

on ice, head west on the back roads

out of Durham, hit this abandoned,

flooded quarry: its clear, cold water,

its worn, creaky rope swing,

its sandy cliffs only reckless locals

dove from. People said

there were dump trucks, cranes

and such equipment still on the bottom,

springs had filled the quarry so fast.

Once, a guy paused with the rope

and told the story of a drunk

who’d supposedly drowned there:

man ties a rock to his ankle, plans

to drop deep fast and explore

what’s down below, then cut

the rock free—but just

as he heaves himself over the edge,

the man fumbles the knife. “Body

never got recovered,” the guy said.


I grabbed that rope

well above the guide knots

and held my breath before my feet

left the bank. Swung out, let go

and plunged deep to where the sun

didn’t reach to warm things.

I couldn’t help kicking hard

for the surface—something in

the sudden, numbing water,

the slug of cheap beer in my belly,

the eye sockets I imagined below

watching my feet flail, the jaw

lolling open and shut with currents

my kicking only worsened, which I knew

even as I kept kicking. Also


this: that time on the porch

just a week before he died

I turned, feeling large,

and asked Brian to join us.

“You coming along?” I offered,

leaning my forehead on the screen.

The other guys waited in the car.

He looked at me from the couch,

bald head slightly cocked

like he wasn’t sure the question

came from me, or the TV.

Go to the quarry?

Go swimming? At first

I thought he had smiled.

* * * * * *

Straight Dope

Three mailboxes on one post

in front of 50 Pettee Ave:

ours, Guido, Angelicola.

For years this post needed fixing—

wood below the soil went rotten,

plus the wobbling got worse

when my brother clipped it with the VW

joyriding on the lawn. Then it happened

Mr. A and Mr. G showed up with tools,

dug a new hole, added two-by-fours

to brace the crap wood. I stayed

inside while they worked, aware

that it was our yard, that my family

were the ones who’d let it go.

First time I’d seen anyone use

a post digger, its pursed lips

containing each mouthful of dirt

just enough to clear the rim of the hole.


Four summers later, for kicks,

my brother and I stacked bricks

and built a fire pit out back

in the defunct sandbox. Nights

we’d load a cooler full of Genny Cream Ale,

light a fire with whatever was around,

torch Oscar Mayers in the flames.

One night toward September, Sam Guido

and Tony Angelicola wandered over,

sat and had a beer with us.

My brother used their first names

and they bullshat frankly with us,

like chums, “I tell you Eddie …” and such.

Am I right to recall some sense

of airing things, of getting the straight dope

after all the years of being neighbors?

Did these men sitting there let on what

they thought of our dad, the professor?


Tony and Sam declined hot dogs

and left the fire after one beer each.

Ed and I threw on twigs, cardboard,

bits of broken sandbox, a length

of old rope—all the fuel

in that small ring of light—then stood

as to root for the cobbled flames.

About the poems:  as shared by the poet

I wrote drafts of these poems nearly thirty years ago, and early versions of them appeared in my MFA thesis in the mid-90s. Over many years, I have revised them again and again; each has probably been through at least 40 or 50 versions. It’s been a long process of streamlining the narratives and axing the garbage, and even a year ago they were not yet in their true forms. I’m grateful to Pine Row for giving them a home at last. 

“The Water” has a companion poem, a kind of coda to it titled "Last Thing" ( that appeared in Cagibi in 2018. The three fathers in “Straight Dope” all died relatively recently: my dad on Father’s Day four years ago, Sam a year ago, and Tony just weeks ago. I would like to dedicate this poem to these men and their surviving families. On a lighter note, both poems happen to mention, and to some extent celebrate, really awful brands of beer that I consumed in my young adulthood, which is funny to me, as I have been for decades a craft beer junkie and probably wouldn’t douse a fire with Oly’s or Genny’s nowadays.  

Steve Petkus has work forthcoming in Artful Dodge and I-70 Review, and other poems have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Naugatuck River Review, Tar River Poetry, Blueline, Cider Press Review, CutBank, and elsewhere. Steve works as a school librarian in New Jersey and lives in the Hudson Valley. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan that carbon-dates back to the mid-90s.

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