Bobbi sits with her husband

Courtesy of MetroGraphics

Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile. Unaware, her left hand rests on his calf, ring finger prominent for her half of the photograph. She wears an apricot dress, freshly pressed for Mass, and pineapple decorative ruffle sandals, flat on the floor, hair gathered in a complex construct of barrettes and pins. You look wifely, he says, mid-level lovely, he says, whatever he thinks that means.

Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to her unborn child; sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done. Smile for the camera, sit next to your father; this is who we are, this is what we do: we smile unremarkable smiles and we are celebrated for our self-regard.

Photographer Samuel — a Gen X artiste who wears a Nevermind tattoo on one bicep, and keeps his belly as flat as a frozen hamburger disc– shifts his lighting umbrella a degree, mostly to impress them, and something to distract himself from thoughts of his aggravated assault charge, his public intoxication record, the delayed shame of fucking the undocumented waitress on top of flattened bed-in-a-box cartons behind the Light of Kings Korean restaurant. Or maybe he’s just a blue-collar guy, a mensch, someone who calls his mother twice a week, dates a Presbyterian girl he met at Bingo, teaches photography part-time at the community college. She considers his prison shoulders, those narrow meat-grinder hips, and it doesn’t really matter who he is. He could take her right here, right in front of the Winter Wonderland backdrop, without so much as a pre-game analysis. She is, after all, mid-level lovely.

And now, melancholy, she turns to her husband. There is a daub of shaving cream smeared beneath his ear, a washed-ashore otter sort of gray. I will not mention this, she decides. I was trapped in my body at such a young age. Where were you when I was frail, hiding from life, biding my time for my time to arrive? I was never further away from you than I am now. What do you think of Samuel? Should he take me here inside the filtered lighting? Should we smoke Chesterfield Kings after the flash bulbs pop? What do you think? What would you say?

“Your hubby says you’re expecting,” says Photographer Samuel, and nods with approval. She despises the word ‘hubby’. It indicates a lateral kind of masculine arrogance, as her mother would say. A word you would present in bold type for a late-morning Saturday cartoon: Hubby and Wifely, Crime-Fighters. Or something. Did it really matter? “It shows,” he says, and then stammers a disclaimer. “I mean that in a good way, of course. I mean the glow.”

“The glow?”

“You know. The expectant-mother glow. Congratulations, is all I mean.”

“Oh. Yes. Thank you. I am glowing, I suppose.” She examines the words in her mouth, tastes them carefully, then swallows. Hubby and glow. What’s next? With child? I am with child with my hubby, and I currently glow. How nice. Those words need to be put to death, of course. She smiles an unremarkable smile. She will save the good smile for later, when it matters, in that fractured disconnect between say cheese and atta girl, you got it right!. Samuel, who is, after all, just a young guy wearing a gray Hanes T-shirt spotted with pizza grease, and retro-60’s mustard-yellow bell bottoms, cannot stop himself:

“I don’t mean ‘glow’ in the traditional sense, in a cliché kinda way, you know? I mean far-out glowing, the way Jackie Kennedy glowed, post-assassination, pre-Onassis, you know?” He grins at the logic of his cleverness.

“She gets it, Sam,” says hubby, finally irritated. “We’re not paying you by the hour, are we? Because all this glowing has got to fucking stop.”

“Oh. Sorry,” says not-so-clever Samuel. He folds his soft arms together and scratches them. “Just making convo.”

Hubby sighs loudly, then waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Bobbi booked this without telling me about it until last night, so my day’s already shot. Don’t take it too seriously.”

“Hey, no problem.”

“That your Mercedes parked out front? The red one?”

“Yeah, man, that’s the’65. A 230 SL, used to be my dad’s.”

“Sweet looking ride.”

“Oh yeah, it is. Only thirty-four thousand original miles, and”

The fabric of the day has changed, she decides. The boys tore it up and altered it into something else, something not dependent upon a woman’s presence. Sorry, Samuel, I have decided not to fuck you now. It’s not your fault, we were doomed from the start. I have too many original miles on me.

Bobbi drifts into the soft babble that surrounds her.

“Babe?” he says in a pretend whisper.

“Hmmm?”

“You have a smudge. Your lips?”

“I have a smudge?”

“I guess. It looks off. The color, I mean.”

He means it’s not perfect. He can wear his hair uncombed and eyebrows untrimmed, and leave a brick of shaving cream below his ear, but the photo will be ruined, completely Armageddonly awful, if her lipstick is presumed to be a microbe “off”.

“Maybe you should pee, while you’re at it,” he whispers. “You’re squirming.”

“Maybe I should pee and de-smudge,” she says. “Yes.” What did he not understand about women? Does he think those things are done simultaneously?

“You alright?”

“Hey, no problem,” she says, and Samuel points to the hallway.

“Second door on the left,” he says. “Knock first, I share it with the dentist’s office next door.”

Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile as you press your key sharply against the doors and hood of a Mercedes-Benz. Remember always to sign the damage prominently in your hubby’s name.

Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to no one as she walks around to the passenger side. Sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done.

Lord, July

Lord, July:

All your scarecrows are spurned in Issaquena, blighted and lonesome and gray. Listened to the hollow burs as we walked, somehow kept time to their fidgety rattle. Some soldiers, the young ones, reached down to snag one, press their fingers along the stems, as if they never saw cotton before, as if they were herding children to their lessons instead of deserters to the noose.

When we reach Mayersville after dawn, there is nothing there but age: a few old women boil coffee in front of their shacks, a small number of old men poke their heads around splintered door frames so they can sniff at the air we bring with us. There are no children here, only the peculiar noise of absence.

The soldiers march us single file to Little Sunflower River.  There are five of us — four, now that Denham has fallen — barefoot and scabbed from the iron that scrapes  our wrists and ankles. We walk with what remains of our shirts tied around our waists, and with our chins, we rub the sweat from our arms.

Lord, give me just a small string of words to comfort me, something to recite to myself, a testament of some weight. 

I see Sergeant Rochester fiddle with a length of rope soon to be draped around someone’s neck, maybe my neck, maybe even his own. I cannot say who the criminal is, because I cannot remember my crime, and he has yet to confess to his.

Lord, she wakes me, and it is almost Christmas:

You were crying, she says.

Was I?

Yes. Something about ropes and cotton. 

She draws me near, and I close my eyes to her.

I don’t remember, I say.

You have them a lot.

Yes. I suppose.

Talk about it?

Not now. I want to listen to you breathe.

She laughs.  Now I’ll have to think about you listening to me breathe. 

She kisses my shoulder and it feels like summer on my skin.

Just breathe, I say, and I’ll do the same.

She turns off the light, 

and I cling to her for warmth. 

I wonder if the Christmas tree is too close to the heating vent, 

and what is hanging from each branch.

Lord, July:

An eruption of artillery, and we fall towards the sawgrass. 

Photo by JACK REDGATE from Pexels

Pentimento

He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, the vigorous dialect of entrails, the still-wet scribbles collected around the jacaranda tree trunk. He takes a rake to the mess, gathers bones in a small paper sack, folds dirt over the killing ground. This has become his morning ritual, and he has not yet told his children about the deeds of their second-favorite pet.

All six sisters sit staunchly upright on an iron bench in front of Ay’s Grocery, waiting for the milk wagon. Some days the girls seem smaller as the early morning fog captures them wearing identical linen dresses.

“That’s alright, Papa,” said Mira, the oldest. “The birds are just waiting for us to die, anyway.”

To each child, a gift is given. The cruelty may be that it may not be discovered, so a father cannot nourish it, thinking it absent. Mira was twelve. He was forty-two and a half, if his birth certificate was correct. It was possible it was not.

“They are all sadness, these blessings,” said Cora, the fourth girl; that something so important could be so simply said.

His girls spoke things that felt substantial. He did not train them to do this. Their mother taught them quietly and privately, so they could save him from his grief.

He presumes to understand the cat sanskrit writ across the front mud yard, but he still cannot quite read the language of his daughters. They already know he hides the birds’ remains from them, and yet still choose to buy fresh milk each morning for their second-favorite pet.

He sits upright against the jacaranda tree trunk and lays his hand upon the wounded dirt. He waits for them to emerge, one girl at a time, from the morning fog.

Where we go dancing

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Me and Fo’ were well-digging since 6:30 that morning — same as every day since the middle of August — at Missus Bryant’s place near the edge of the Tallahatchie, and we looked exactly as what we claimed: gritty all the way under our hats and teeth. Miss Francine, Fo’s older cousin from Chicago, said she was curious about where folks went to dance in Dollar, and he told her, “in our kitchens, mostly. But sometimes in the grass when the night is particularly dark and clear. We take turns at the radio dial — we hope for some Dinah Washington, but maybe come across Buster Benton, or turn it up REAL loud when we finally find Little Richard (if we can find a station that plays him) — and when we’re not dancing, or listening, we watch for stray headlights that might be bringing bottles of Something Special to folks who carry more than just cherry Lifesavers and carpenter’s pencils in their pockets.” And that was the most expansive speech I ever heard Fo’ give, but I was aware that he wanted to impress Miss Francine, and was a little bit infatuated with her besides. He grunted at me when I asked him to explain how anyone he knew would bother with a carpenter pencil when it would be just as efficient to mark a measurement with a sharp stone. Miss Francine turned to me and she smiled her most famous big city smile and she asked me, “Do you dance, Bennett, and not just with scarecrows, but with real girls? I don’t expect you to know how to dance with a woman, so don’t you dare be nervous if you have to say no.” And I said, “Miss Francine, I can dance the ears off a row of corn when I have a mind to. Why, that corn becomes ashamed of itself and wishes it could be half as worthy as old dry cabbage or a leaf of backfield tobacco than have to endure another minute of the spectaculation of my feet.” Fo’ made a sound like the backfire from his uncle Joby’s Massey-Harris. “It’s Friday night, Bennett,” she said. “I suppose a boy like you knows where to find a hot spot to dance, other than a nearby cornfield. Or with an ear of corn.” I blushed. I did not know any dancing place nearby, but I told her: “Yes, ma’am, I do,” and Fo’ leaned over and jabbed a skinny knuckle just below my rib cage. “Boy,” he said, “you don’t even know where to find a working radio in your Mama’s house.” I meant to swat him, but he side-stepped me and I almost fell into the hood of Miss Francine’s Chevrolet, which would have had a ruinous effect after my dance story. “Steady there, corn boy,” Fo’ whispered. “There is a cotton gin barn in Glendora,” I said to Miss Francine, and Fo’ raised his eyebrows. “I heard that they sometimes hold dances there for young people. They keep ice buckets of Coca-Cola and sell them for two cents a bottle and they run a generator for a jukebox.” This was not entirely untrue, because both Fo’ and I heard the story from my sister’s boyfriend Henry, who was only unreliable half the time. We were also told that it was a place for older boys, nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, and that we should stay away from there unless we wanted  to trade our curiosity for a beating. Fo’ was fifteen and I was almost fourteen (but looked older). And Miss Francine was a grownup woman with a car, so I didn’t think it was necessarily a stupid idea. “That’s a stupid idea, Bennett,” Fo’ said, and Miss Francine only shrugged, and that was the end of that. So we spent most of that night behind Fo’s grandma’s house, drinking lemonade and ice water, and the place stood out for me like a sandcastle under a three-quart moon, fading in and out, washing away and retreating under all kinds of wavering shadows. We heard  cries in that still night, or what I thought were cries , and some screams, though I imagined and dreamed of all kinds of things in the days that followed. We heard about the boy the next day. Miss Francine’s brother RickyLee  drove her back home to Chicago soon after. We shook hands and said goodbye, and I could see the relief in her eyes that she’d never have to come back here. I wanted to go with her, and not just because I liked her (I did), but because I wanted to be far away from everything here that was so broken and mean. 

They found that boy’s body, the boy they called Bobo, and what was done to him, I can’t describe, and I won’t. It made me give up on learning how to be a boy. All at once, the idea of being foolish for the sake of being foolish seemed so badly foolish, and I ran from it fast. Me and Fo’, we stopped being boys right away. We gave up on digging wells for thirty-cents a day for Miss Bryant and her ilk, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what kind of men we wanted be. Some days it still matters, I guess. I asked Fo’ years later what his grandma thought about us staying in her backyard that night. “Don’t think she stitched the two things together,” he said. “ But she was always kind about you, in spite of you sometimes being a world-class fool. ‘You boys act properly around Miss Francine? Ricky’s girl?’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said. ‘We amused her plenty. She’s a nice girl and we were very respectful.’ Granny nodded, like that was what she expected. Then she rubbed her eyes, like she was suddenly weighed down by a lifetime of tiredness. ‘Nice is good, Fo’, she said. ‘Being reliable is good. But taking care of one another… making each other feel safe in the other’s company. That is especially good. And you are good, Fo’ You are especially good.’ And then she told me an old story about a dance contest she entered when she was a girl. I heard the story a hundred times before, but this time it gave me shivers, Bennett. You know? It still does. We could have gone dancing at the wrong place that night.” 

That was the only time we ever cried together, and it rained down hard out of our eyes.

The point of a circle

i.

In this twice-awful summer, we’ve become seasoned to the swell of black powder and scorched cedars coming in from Dorian Bandy’s old tobacco farm. One pretty day, I’ll invite you to see for yourself the swath of red-dirt graves stretched out like a shadow across that particular valley. 

Joselia, it’s not just us who lost their boys. 

Every day takes them further away from us. Their personal effects – freckles above the hairline, tides of peasant temper, pitches of overweening laughter — will fade. Memory will become unreliable again, or, worse, untrue. Our boys ought never have become explanations for our failures. I find myself wandering in and out of those years, restless to settle into a time that wants to keep me. 

Write to me when you have the time or inclination, etc. There are some names I can’t remember that need remembering; they’re like table settings that suffer from mismatched cutlery. Not important anymore, but still….

I remember a woman you used to like until you didn’t. I remember everything about her except her name. It scares me, what I’ve forgotten.

Regards, Robert

ii.

Robert, while you think about the names you need to keep, I consider distance. The great spaces between a mourning father and — what was it you called me last winter? — a bitter maw. It all falls in the span of summer minutes, between the lightning bugs and the cicadas. I think of the states lovers find themselves during wartime, when that war is fought over a misspoke word or a misdirected eye. Lines are drawn, fences built, promises buried. The wounded, the lost, the dead.

I don’t consider either of us blameless. Boys going off to war is not something we decided for them. Boys must let loose their vitality in a meaningful way. Were we proud of them? Of course. Were we afraid for them? If I’m to be honest, I would say not as afraid as I should have been. We were on the side of right, weren’t we? We believed in better angels. We — I — worried they might come home lightly damaged, their packaging torn a little. But this. This! It is the price we pay for such righteous pride. War does not care about mothers or fathers, does it? We were not excluded, we were not exceptional. There is this distance between what we thought we were and what was done to us. It was this burden of false expectation that changed who we are to each other. That was my culpability.

You worry about the names of women from twenty-two years ago. Robert, you are an ass.

I am disinclined to accept your invitation to survey your local gravesite, regardless of how pretty the day. Robert, were we always doomed in this regard? It is a serious question, and I have been asking it for the past fourteen months. Write back or not, depending on how long your pout.

Regards, etc., Joselia

iii.

We bathed in the limestone waters of Cutcheon Creek this morning. The rain lashed us hard for twelve days, and we emerged with willful appetites. Sally (her name was Sally) said she could hardly see Bent Leather Church, said it resembled a salt block slung crossways in the mud. 

“She will never know, Robert,” she said, and I was eager to agree with her.

Lime slippers

limer

I .

You said:

 “So — and just so you know this, just so you recognize what I am telling you — this will mean the end of your crisp hospital corners.”

“Française, please, Marie. Pas d’anglais s’il vous plaît.”

You squeezed your eyes shut. You hated this; I knew this about you. Cela signifiera la fin de vos coins d’hôpital nets!”

And you left. You walked out on him, and you did not show him a tear. You gave those tears to me — raw and lucid — half a mile down the road. 

“I didn’t tell him what we rehearsed, Daniel. I’m sorry. If you want, you can drop me off at the drug store and I will call for a taxi.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because the French word for fuck does not sound quite so declarative to you, and it is the only language I want to use right now.”

“I’m not just dropping you off.”

“Then you can wait for me in the car. I only need a few things. I don’t even have a pair of slippers, and I dislike your stone floors.”

“Then I will knit you a throw rug. An entire series of them.”

“You don’t knit rugs, Daniel, you crochet — never mind. It will only take me five minutes if I don’t swear en français, ten minutes if I do, fifteen if the police are summoned.”

“Marie?” I said, and leaned towards her. “You’re finished with him. Terminé. No police, please. We go home, to our home, to our floors, and I will kiss you just a little.”

“You are not French, Daniel. You do not know how to kiss me just a little. I am too distracting for your petits English kisses, ma chérie.”

“Then let us scorch your fresh hospital corners,” I said, “and I will kiss you into eventuality.” You laughed more tears than you cried, and I discovered a new thing: you were mostly unafraid to run with me, and I was mostly afraid I could not keep up with you.

II.

Seven dollars and sixteen cents for a pair of lime-colored slippers. Molded cotton with thin rubber soles. You bought me a six-pack of Löwenbräu and a ballpoint pen. I’m still not sure why. You brought with you a plain cloth shopping bag filled with toiletries and magazines and chocolate, as if this were a vacation, or an escape.

 “The years,” you said. “The years that I made their bed, cooked their meals. The years, Daniel.”

“Years that are behind you now,” I said. “Those slippers, though. They will last forever.”

“Are they not beautiful? They were in a discount bin beside the cassette tapes. I almost bought you a Dan Fogelberg album… he reminds me of you. There were mauve slippers, and orange, and strawberry red, but this was the only pair in this particular shade.” 

‘They look radioactive.”

Oui. I should be able to find them in the dark.”

“You should be able to find them from outer space.”

Oui. Is that wrong?”

“No, not wrong. In fact, very apt. Very you.”

Oui. Very me. Are you jealous I did not buy you a pair? As I said, these were the only ones in this color.”

“You got the slippers, I got the pen. And the beer. Very me.”

“Yes, and I am very tired now, Daniel. Do you mind? I am ready for those small kisses of yours, but, I regret, not much more. Are you sad now?”

“Sad? Yes, a little,” I said. “But it’s a long drive, and you need to sleep.”

“Ah, yes. And the world sends its regrets.” And she turned from me. 

The city was behind us and it was a bronze Rodin sculpture, a monument to this idolatry I felt. What remained of the moon was scattered, masking absinthe rows of stunted trees. Where we landed was so far from the place I thought was promised us. Of course I was sad. 

III.

You said:

“I think you will be a very good artist, Daniel,” but it was in French: Je pense que tu seras un très bon artiste, Daniel.

Your voice was sleepy and shadowy. “Yes? I will be?”

“Of course you are already good. But great, is what I mean.”

We will be great,” I said. “You will be there to see to that, right? By my side?”

Oui. I will see it.” 

“Did you sleep? You were very quiet.”

“No. No sleep. This is a longer drive at night. It bears a weight, does it not?”

“It feels like it. It’s late, almost 1:30. We’ll be there soon.”

“How soon?”

“Half an hour, forty-five minutes. Traffic’s light, so not too long.” I stroked her cheek and she closed her eyes. “This would have been an expensive taxi ride.”

“Yes. I am sorry. He made me so angry, I could not think. ‘Française, please. Pas d’anglais s’il vous plaît.’ Like I was a child.”

“You were kind to leave it at that,” I said. “You two are like sticks of dynamite when you’re together, each one holding up a match, daring the other to strike.”

“He is a bastard.”

“He is your father.”

“That does not change his bastardness.”

“I suppose not. Let it go for now,  Marie. It is still a fresh wound. Give it time to heal.”

“Yes. To heal. Can we stop somewhere for coffee? I feel a migraine gathering between my eyes.”

“We’re not too far from home, honey.”

“Please? I won’t be able to sleep anyway. I am still tightened up.”

Wound up.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re too wound up. That’s the expression.”

Pardon, can we somewhere for a fucking coffee so I can will not be so wound up?”

“Yes. You are tightened up, my mistake. Next exit, I promise.”

“I am so sorry, Daniel.” 

C’est la vie. It’s been a long night.”

Oui. It has. We are arguing like bastards.”

IV.

I said:

“Two creams, two sugars, is that correct?”

“Yes, my love. And I am so sorry. Beaucoup d’excuses.”

“No worries,” I said. “Anything else?”

No. Yes! Perhaps beignets, if they have them? I am suddenly hungry.”

“I’ll ask, you bet. Or any reasonable substitute.” 

Oui. Any reasonable substitute.”

It was two o’clock in the morning, but the restaurant — Mister Warren’s Southside — was busy, with a lot of truckers and shift workers filling up on coffee and early/late breakfasts. Who ‘Mister Warren’ was, I had no idea. The room was filled with the usual aromas of a good diner: freshly brewed coffee, greasy eggs, toast, bacon, good cigarettes. I almost went back to the car to ask you if you wanted a sit-down breakfast, but then I remembered your oncoming migraine. So I stood in line and waited. There were three large men and a laughing tattooed woman ahead of me. I thought you might fall asleep, and so was in no hurry. I thought of ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper, and smiled. If I could be that good….

When it was my turn to order, I asked for two large coffees, and half-a-dozen Boston creams. I think they were freshly made. I stuffed extra napkins in my pocket. I almost started to whistle, walking out the door, but I think I knew.

The car, of course, was gone. I retraced my steps, trying to convince myself I parked one row over, or not as close to the parking lot lights. I refused to notice the plain cloth shopping bag left in place of the car. I thought you were playing a game with me because I corrected your English. How many times did I correct your English? So I stood there. And I stood there longer, and I waited. I knew but refused to believe. You were gone. Inside that plain cloth shopping bag was your / my pair of lime green slippers. No note. No explanation. 

I found a ride home, eventually. I arrived at seven-thirty that morning. My car was there, parked in the driveway, and you were still gone. There was no note. I decided not to wait for you. I went inside and placed the plain cloth shopping bag on the kitchen table.

I cried more tears than I laughed, and I discovered a new thing: you were mostly afraid to run with me, and I was mostly afraid you would not keep up with me.

I went to bed and I slept on the back of several broken hours. When I woke up, I showered and shaved. 

Then I discovered a new thing about me: I would move on. And I decided I would cancel my French lesson on Monday.

I took them for three more weeks, and then signed on for the advanced class.

sub.stance

I remember when dust was more beautiful than substance, something uncatchable, something whisked into cat corners. This was home. This was being a child. 

There is a box of in-season lettuce on the sidewalk beside the glass doors of Karl’s Barber Shop. Ladybugs — many — are sitting on the cardboard folds. Do they sit or stand? I’ve always wondered. The box is set crooked against the chipped brick wall, and it has been filled many times before: for lettuce, now, perhaps for apples, once, or old dishes, frail, muffled by newspapers and crimped grandmother-pillows. 

clear-glass-jar-with-white-blue-and-red-stripe-print-cover-4542858

This, being a child:

My father stands at the door, and he exhales hues of cigarette smoke, blue and gray and an ivory plume in the shape of a Saturday morning. The smoke smells important and impatient, the scent of everything I know of him: his roughness, his capriciousness. He is still a young man, and he has created everything.

It is numbness more than ecstasy that will lift you, I would tell my five-year-old self.

“Morning, Johnny. Brought your boy with you today, huh?”

“He’s getting a little long behind the ears. Say hi, bubs.”

I say, “Hi.”

“Well, hey, little man. You turning into a hippy? That hair is looking wild.”

“No, sir. Daddy say I jus’ need a trim.”

“Just a trim, yessir. Hop on over here, son, let’s see what I can see. Look at you, grown two inches since last time. What you feeding him, John? Magic beans?”

“Spinach!” I shout.

“That right? Never could stand the stuff, but it must work for you. Same as usual, John?”

“Yeah,” says my father, who is already seated. “No. Cut it a little shorter. There’s talk of layoffs at the plant this fall. Might not see another haircut ‘til Christmastime. Go ahead and bean him.”

“Damn, Johnny. Hope things turn out okay.”

“Probably not. Goddamn Nixon. Just do the boy today, Karl. I’m driving cab tonight, and I don’t care how I look.”

“That so?”

“Part-time, cigarette and gas money, mostly.” He picks up a copy of Field and Stream. There is a picture of a trout on the cover. He showed it to me last time we were here. “This is a trout,” he said. “About half as long as you are, Joseph. Those colors above his belly tell me he is of the rainbow variety.”

“Really, Daddy?”

“You calling me a liar, son?”

“No, sir. Never saw a fish that big before, that’s all.”

“They get bigger,” he says, and shrugs. That was my father’s primary form of communication: the sharp grunt of the shrug, the shut-up-if-you-think-you-have-more-to-say shorthand that is so easily misunderstood. It can be difficult to translate when you’re five years old. When you’re fifty-five, even.

“Wasn’t expecting you ‘til next Saturday,” says Mister Karl. “Wasn’t this your old lady’s turn to look after him?”

“Bitch changed her plans,” Daddy says. “She knew I had things to do this weekend. Goddamn car payment, goddamn kid payment. She won’t be happy ‘til she sees me go bust.”

“Uh, John?”

“Now I’m stuck with you-know-who all weekend. Might be able to land a babysitter, I dunno, I doubt it. It’s already too late to call my usual sitter.”

“Johnny? Big ears here, son.”

Daddy looks over and sees Karl pointing at me. I can see him in the big mirror. I pretend not to notice, but my face feels red.

“Aw, hell,” Daddy finally says. “Joseph gets to ride in the front of the cab with me tonight, ain’t that right, bubs?”

I try to be cheerful. “Yes, sir. And we’re gonna have hotdogs for supper, Mister Karl. And watermelon!”

“And watermelon? Holy smoke, kid, you got a good Saturday planned, dontcha? Wish I were going with you, instead of cutting hair all day. And you get to spend time with your old man. You’re one lucky kid, you know that?”

“Yes, sir. And Mister Karl?”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Why is there a box of lettuce out in front of your shop? You know there’s a bunch of ladybugs all over the box? Won’t they eat the lettuce?”

Mister Karl smiles. “Yeah, kid, I hope so.” And then to my father: “You know old Pierce over at the hardware store? His wife put up a garden again this summer — the whole backyard this time — and he can’t give stuff away fast enough. Some mornings, it’ll be green beans, next day it’s onions. Today, it’s lettuce. A whole box of it, as you can see. What do I want with that much lettuce? A few pounds of potatoes, sure, but lettuce? Do I look like a rabbit? If you want a head or five, grab some on your way home. Otherwise, let the bugs have it. At least it don’t stink, like those turnips did. Hey, you remember that, Johnny? A goddamn milk crate full of ‘em. I told Pierce, son, next time bring me some of your old lady’s brisket, not her turnips. Does he ever get tired of ignoring me? Not yet, he don’t.”

I listen to the cadence of Mister Karl’s voice, but not to most of his words. I  think he is a nice man, but he seems to be honestly confused by someone who has done a nice thing for him. Free vegetables? Free lettuce? Daddy calls lettuce a ruination of a good sandwich. I guess so. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem important enough to worry about it, or become angry over. Let the bugs have it, I guess. 

Mister Karl trims me very short. There is a big pile of hair beside the barber chair. I didn’t know there was so much of me to take. Daddy did not look at me the whole time, or at anything else, not even the old magazines. He nodded during Mister Karl’s speech about vegetables, but I don’t think he was even listening. Mister Karl dusts off my neck and shoulders with his little barber brush, and then helps me down. Daddy does not notice my haircut is finished.

“See you next week, Johnny? You’re getting a little long behind the ears, too, fella.”

“Yeah, maybe. We’ll see. Take it easy, Karl. Hell of a night tonight, I guess. Wish me luck.”

Mr. Karl hands me a penny for the gumball machine. “Good luck, son,” he says, and then he winks. This time, I get an orange gumball, one of the big ones.

Daddy takes one last look at the box of wilting lettuce outside and nudges it with the toe of his boot so that it’s flush to the wall. He lights up a cigarette and walks on ahead of me. I try to keep up, but fall further and further behind. 

This is being a child. This was being dust. This is being dust.

 

The middle of a very rainy afternoon

We heard the baritone command of the rain 
— it was a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.
We clouded together under the canopy
of a delicatessen and waited for the pastrami
to invite us inside, but it was typically mute
(as pastrami will be), and so we waited.

We had no umbrella,
and my suit was freshly laundered
and Dee’s hairstylist was profoundly anti-weather,
so we watched the sky and the gray passers-by,
and waited for a change:
perhaps a burr of sunlight,
or a morsel of blue above the Grand Theatre 
or William’s Mercantile?
But none availed itself to us.

My wristwatch was impatient,
for I had an appointment to somewhere,
and Dee was terribly afraid of catching
pneumonia or heart-faintness,
and the Delicatessen was about to close.
We would be stranded! in the middle of the city,
perhaps savaged by the wageless poor
that roamed the alleys behind the
dry-cleaning establishment.

The music of the rain no longer entertained us,
and our bones shuddered in the dampness.
Dee’s glasses were misted by her anxious tears,
and I longed for a cup of Earl Grey, strongly brewed,
and in a civilized setting. 
I sighted a taxi-cab passing by,
Off Duty, it suggested, and I waved,
and the attendant waved his finger back at me
— a charming fellow — but he still drove away.

And now here we wait, Dee and I,
impervious to this foul weather:
more resilient than most, and braver than many.
The afternoon has fallen upon us in a very hard way,
but my suit is still unassailable
and Dee’s curls still hold most successfully.

We will wait until our moral victory is assured
should the rain ever stop for a moment or two
or until the umbrella shop next door
re-opens its doors to us before
close of business today.
Still we hear the baritone command of the rain 
— it is a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.

The man on the other side of the door

This is a place of unremarkable geometry, of hand hewn beams and reclaimed cabinets, of cotton curtains and poplin tablecloths.There are stout lines built around her silly feminine froth. You might savvy her girlish moods: the bright New Orleans yellow in the hallway, or maybe the baby doll figurines on the bookcase. But don’t forget, this is my home, and it is a place of unremarkable cruelties. 

There are stains in my study that look like ketchup, but are not. There are sudden movements that turn on all the security lights.There is a smell that is barely masked by the nine dollar dirt that feeds her windowsill herbs.

I’ve heard all these sounds before, but this one is closer, and I know why. There is a man on the other side of the door, limping, wet from the chase. He beats on the glass with the heel of his hand. I turn on the porch light because I know. I’ve been expecting him for twenty years, back from a time when my life was fraying. He took the left road and I took the right. I don’t want to see him now — for us to see each other, really — but his t-shirt is torn from armpit to belly, and I swore to him. He is older now, of course he is, but his eyes still show his fury, and mine have turned soft and careless. 

Richard,” was the only word he had to say, and I knew it was time.