In junior high Spanish class
Mr. Koochman gave each kid a nickname
that followed us into the streets.
The pouty ingénue was Labios Levine,
the over-developed blonde Melones Morgan,
the kid from the projects, Kong Coleman.
The hairy one became Oso,
the sweaty one Puerco,
and the frail, nervous one
who rode the D train early
with the night nurses and winos,
was dubbed Hércules.
This was the Bronx in 1965.
Koochman, a cadaver in tweed,
gave a daily quiz, and as of March
Hércules hadn’t missed a question.
So the tests got harder.
And the subway became a study hall
for the boy’s now-epic obsession.
Until, with two weeks left in the school year,
Koochman, understanding he was beaten,
called Hércules to stand before him
and, quivering, yelled, “You are a machine,”
in his pustuled face. The kid just turned
toward the empty blackboard,
slid a piece of chalk from its metal ledge,
and wrote down his name.
At our 40th reunion a woman resembling Melones
ran up to me, shouting, “Hércules, Hércules . . .”
She had apparently placed second in the class
then spent her career as a Spanish translator,
so was devastated to learn that I
had not become the U.S. Ambassador to Spain.
I was about to tell her she had the wrong guy—
that was another boy.
Then I remembered who we all were once.
It’s what she uses
to keep me away, and how
I know she’s still here.
Ken Haas was born in New York City; went to college, law school, and business school at Harvard University; and received an MA in English literature at the University of Sussex, U.K., where he wrote his thesis on Wallace Stevens. He now lives in San Francisco where he works in healthcare and sponsors a weekly poetry writing program at UCSF Children’s Hospital, which employs two poet-teachers from California Poets in the Schools. His poetry has been anthologized in The Place that Inhabits Us (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010) and the Marin Poetry Center Anthology (2012, 2013).