I hug my mother, try to put
a twenty into her hand,
convince her to take a taxi
home. I feed him a few
spoonfuls of cherry jello,
hold the cup as he sucks
a bent straw. We both feel
better when he falls asleep.
We love each other, but ran
out of things to say last
Monday. We stopped talking
about the time I was five
riding on his shoulders
as he carried me up
the ramp for my first look
at the Yankee Stadium infield
as green and magical as Gates
to Emerald City; or at nineteen
when he changed his seat
at the dinner table, told
my mother he couldn’t keep
his food down while looking
at me and my friggin’ long hair.
I kept staring into my plate,
ate faster. I must have sighed
or raised my eyes to the ceiling
because he charged around the table,
grabbed the back of my hair,
yanked on it and held me there,
balanced on the back legs
of the chair, daring me to make
one more friggin’ sound
as my mother kept yelling
his name, yelling to let me go.
Instead, I watch Seinfeld
re-running on the monitor
hanging over his head,
try to anticipate the lines
that always make me laugh.
Later, I sit by the window,
stare at the buildings
lighting up, kitchen after
kitchen. I nod to the daughter
of the man in the next bed
as she walks in. He’s dying
too. I watch her ass, wish
this was a movie. We’d go
for dinner, linger over
coffee in a nearby cafe,
hold hands while we wait
for a light to change, end up
in her cramped apartment.
But no, there’s nothing to say
or do. Our fathers are racing
in slow motion toward
whatever comes next or nothing
at all. Neither of us sure
if the winner is the one
who fights to stay alive,
or lets go, dies tonight.
NOT THE WORST THING
At dinner, Don’s new girlfriend
talks about the one time she hit
her son. He was five and screaming,
squirming loose of his seat belt harness.
She kept half turning, reaching
behind to strap him back in, begging
him to stop as cars sped by, horns
blared. When she started to pull out,
he grabbed the back of her hair
and yanked. She turned, smacked him
twice. Two years ago and her eyes
show she isn’t close to forgiving
herself. Don strokes Sue’s hand
with his thumb. She’s separated
from her third husband. Each one
sounds more abusive than the one before.
Don stopped speaking to his parents
years before he started to suspect
they did unspeakable things to him.
Somewhere, deep down, he’s measuring
those two slaps and what they mean
to his girlfriend, her son, their future.
I dip a chip in the salsa, ask if
her son ever pulled her hair again.
I agree it’s not the point, but I’d bet
he hasn’t done anything like that again.
Sometimes, a good well-timed smack
across the face isn’t the worst thing.
When I say this, they glance at each
other. The waitress brings the check,
I have to hurry, meet my new girlfriend
in fifteen minutes. She’s half my age
and we ended up in bed too quickly.
We’re learning about each other,
finding out how we fit together
while she lies against my chest
and waits to see if my cock will get
hard again. Last time, she talked
about her white trash Jersey childhood,
the night her next door neighbor called
the cops and her dad was arrested.
Her head had swelled big as a watermelon.
She said it was her fault and she still
feels bad. She kept sticking her face
into her dad’s face and asking him
if he felt good beating up a girl,
daring him to try and shut her up
every time he was ready to stop.
I didn’t know what to say. I shifted
position, leaned on one arm. I touched
her hair, kissed her closed eyes
until she started to kiss me back.
My father hit me four, five times.
I can still feel the weight of his hand,
the sting hitting my skin, flashing
down my spine. I remember trying
not to cry until I made it to my room,
my little brother sitting on his bed,
asking if I was alright and telling him
to leave me the hell alone. Probably
I put on headphones, played the loudest
music I owned and filled my head
with scenes of torturing my father
as he wasted away in a nursing home.
Hours later he would knock on my door
or call me down stairs to talk. I think
we’d apologize, make promises. We might
have hugged, or maybe we didn’t touch
at all. Still, I always felt better, almost
closer, as if we had forgiven each other
something terrible because I loved him
and I knew he loved me more than anything.
I’m up early folding the mattress
back into the couch. My wife is asleep
behind our closed bedroom door.
My stepson is sliding the first
of today’s maybe two hundred videos
into the machine’s slot. Even though
no one in this apartment has any reason
to believe in Jesus, last night
we pretended everything was good.
Jesse wasn’t autistic and Helen
wasn’t falling out of love with me.
We sat at the kitchen table, dipped
hard boiled eggs into plastic cups
filled with colored water. Jesse
crouched, his eyes level with the edge
of the table and he jumped in delight
every time we dunked an egg
beneath the surface. Helen
caught my eye a few times
and neither one of us could keep
from smiling. When Jesse lost
interest, walked back to his room,
we finished the dozen, hardly
talking. She then said goodnight,
took a book to bed while I played
the radio softly, thought about
how hopeless I felt as I bent
down, hid a purple egg under
the bed, leaned over to kiss Jesse
while he slept so perfectly.
"Vigils" was published in Poet Lore and "Not The Worst Thing" was in The Ledge and "Easter" was included in THE LAST LIE