It began when your father’s hand tiptoed
from your shoulder. What did you think in the dark?
Remember the whistle lifting off the locomotive
each night, that shrill call from the tracks.
Or the deep horn that warned the ferry from the hull,
plowing fog at the wet curve of earth.
How the warmth of the gone hand fades.
One night he forgot to flick the nightlight
when he went. That’s the way it ends,
the way you learn to trust the solitude.
No lighthouse ever saved a blind sailor; no mother
ever saved a son from what she knows rail
and river bring, bring and take away.
Every day at four the rabbits skittered crazy
in the pen for pellets while mother watched
her broken stove buckled in the corner
like a refugee. Every supper multiplied
confusion. Father used to shoot them in the head.
Memory is tricky, though I’m sure they hung
from rafters in the shed, shorn of skin, blue
meat and flies ready for the iron pan
above the oven door he sutured shut with wire.
I used to think it was the slaughtered meal
that stopped her fork. But now I dream Dad’s bag
packed heavy on the porch, the sax slung
in its case, and, leaning on the house,
a rifle with notches on the butt and silent ricochet.
Have you ever heard a dying rabbit scream?
His alto sax could sound like that and make
your spine go tight. Mother didn’t sing
all day, just pinned our laundry to the line.
White clothes, lonely for his jeans and ratty socks—
the space they would have hung from
filled up by the sky and what he didn’t say.
The night the clock fell off the wall
seconds ticked across the kitchen tile
like bits of glass and Momma ran them down.
We watched her elbows work the floor,
dress flapping as she broomed
the fractured hands into a bag.
The room came clean and Dad rammed shut
the door with his good arm and fled.
Then she cried and sent us off to sleep.
She took a week to hang another clock.
Remember how we heard electric time
hum and haunt the wall above the stove?
Then the dog we lost barked one night
beyond our sight. But we went back
to school like normal kids. And Dad
walked through the open door again,
his sax beneath his arm as if he’d never left.
The Oak Road boys pushed the bow into my hands
taunting me to take a life for them.
I aimed the arrow high above the squirrel
but low enough to let them think I wanted blood.
The squirrel stood still and hugged the trunk
steady as my pulse until I bent the bow
and snapped it loose. Then the squirrel leapt up
to meet a point in time and catch it in the back.
We watched it pinned to wood a while,
the way paws beat the bark as if to blame
the tree. Before the sky dropped down to fix
those eyes in cloud, it screamed.
It was the human pitch that scared the Oak Road
boys away, but I was stuck by sound until
it stopped. And when it stopped I stayed
more still and felt the rush of blood
veins arrowed at my heart to make me move.
Once, age four, I fell from bed at night
and lay there wild enough to yell the darkness
white, but no one came to put me back.
I hugged the floor in vain for what was lost
and beat my knuckles raw until at last
in that harder place I came alone to sleep.
I was six when the doctor froze his smoke.
So mother burned cartons of Luckies
like leaves in the alley ash can.
And dad’s colors drained—
a brown from deep within his fingers,
the yellow etched into the marrow of his teeth.
I missed the crisp cellophane shards on the sofa
and the earthy autumn smell
rising from the cushions in his chair.
I missed the smoke seeped into his lungs,
how his chest filled at leisure
as the light dropped down the blinds
in the little room
slat by slat.
For months we wondered at his temper,
how he inhaled candy by the bag
until his face, reddened by loss
of that cloudy angel,
nearly burst into fire.
We forget sacrifices a father turns to habit,
a kind of faith:
hiding ashtrays, wiping walls of nicotine.
Thirty years later, when the cancer etched his bones,
he offered up his testicles,
buying time with living coin.
No doctor knew what magic part to cut out next,
and when he finally went
I’ll bet it was his lungs that held
the final pink inside him.
Isn’t it a measured paring down we do
to save a hazy corner of the future:
from our fattest appetite to the final
belt-hole in the leather—a cutting back
to smaller rooms, fewer steps, a slimmer
piece of fish, until there’s little left
to choose between—us and just the air,
just the smoke we’re bound for.
And here we keep the wall animals, ears for the most part
and sharp snouts children favor, formerly cast by hand.
Now we own the tools to put faces on dumb jaws
so mothers and fathers may flick a switch
and sneak from the room, fingers intact.
To the left are the darks of one million negatives.
We gauge the blackest parts to millimeters then,
by careful splicing, fit shadow to actual
buildings and let whole cities hide
from themselves, reduced to snapshots.
The CIA shows interest, but this room serves solely
to promote memory loss. Next are the white shadows
of the dying. Many a man wears one in rain or in his youth
to impress companions. The pope, it is said,
bought a pair to confound assassins,
the press of pious crowds, and pilgrims who claim
to have seen the Holy Ghost at his wake
in a puff of smoke. And finally we give you a souvenir,
the stuffing of dreams. Because of all the ways
you have shed skin, we will elaborate your death
for survivors. First, slip out of your clothes and forget
fifty years of sunlight; you melt without it.
When a puddle forms, we pump it through the lungs
of mushrooms and throw you black and grotesque
on the wall of someone who forgot you.
Because the girl could who taught you to Watusi
and your father could, too, who knotted
bowties into butterflies. Because your left leg
lay jealous of its strong twin and bored as a day
at the shore, sand-caked and still. The Beetle
faced uphill and you feared rolling back, blind
to the past. Then she said, feel, feel the friction point.
Press ahead, her hand on yours like a manual brain
until the right arm learns to think for itself.
This century forgets the feel of a fountain pen
flowing words, or a foamy shaving brush
on your face. Drive on, like a crusty used car
throttling into summer on Old Oak Lane,
a thruway now, back to that stiff clutch,
its stubborn failure to turn into something
like the lever that moves the world. You learn
to slip the clutch smooth as a heart that hits
high gear just in time to steer through the skid
in the miles that go both ways. Cruise beyond
the dead girl, the dead father and his long reach,
closer to whatever lies just around the bend.