My Old Man
My old man taught me the four-beat line:
“Straighten up and fly right,” he’d order,
stabbing his forefinger into my chest.
An Air Force sergeant for twenty-three years,
he never flew anything but off the handle.
I can still see his eyes bugging out
like a chow’s, the veins in his neck
like a relief map of a mountain range.
Bullied his entire life by bad luck
and loss, hasty marriage, a child
he claims was three months premature,
he tried to bully respect from me.
“Pardon my French,” he’d quip, farting,
his hairy belly slopping over a pair
of plaid Bermudas, the crotch ripped.
I remember him squatting in the yard
like a toad to catch the sizzling curves
I fancied I pitched. He threw them back
like a girl. And I remember the pitch
of the fast-talking carny who took
my old man, before wife and kids,
for a month’s pay. He marched us home
in silence, shut himself in the bathroom.
We heard water running for hours.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” he advised.
I did neither. Once, I was sentenced to
comb the yard of rocks, a hundred a day,
for a year. They got so sparse, finally,
I had to steal them from the neighbors.
I was decorated most of my childhood
with the bruises left by his “love taps.”
I was double-fisted in the back of
the neck for arguing with my mother.
My old man stammered himself into rage —
that's when his hands got articulate.
He could hand-tool a belt in half
an hour flat, knock his firstborn son
unconscious, or watercolor a seascape.
At seventeen, my old man overseas, I
ran away. Shivering beneath an interstate
in Albany, afraid to sleep, I tried to
assemble the little I knew of his life
before me. The runt of a litter of six;
born in St. Louis the day his mother
died. His father never forgave him that
and palmed him off on his married sisters.
He was passed between them as casually
as a salt cellar — “A millstone and a trial.”
Then, a soldier. World War II arrived
before his first whisker, and what he did,
was done to him, in the Pacific “theater”
is a bedtime story he refused to tell.
“I made a mistake,” I stammered into the cold
receiver of the pay phone. “I want to come
home.” In the long silence that followed,
I remembered sitting at the kitchen table
with my old man the day I demanded he
send me away to school. “Why?” he asked.
“Because,” and I said it right out loud,
“I hate you.” In the next five years
he didn't hit me, didn't touch me. We
coexisted like two bricks in the same wall.
When he left for Guam to load bombs, I
wouldn't even wish him luck … Though now
I remember the touch of something closer.
It was my old man's voice. “Come home.”
And what can I tell you, old man, turned
out on a pension of high blood pressure
and migraines, your family scattered,
the last ten years faded out like the
smoke tail from a jet? This morning,
for the umpteenth time, I listened
to your dream: to pass the last years
painting sunrises from a tramp steamer,
to watch the swells converge in distance,
to live the past as it might have been.
And so I go again among the small things —
the hackneyed words, the gestures, the brush
of a hand — which I must trust were stabs
at love. Good luck, old man. Bonne chance.
From Home (Dragon Gate, 1983); first published in Pavementabout the author