My Old Man

Jim Simmerman

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 Pavement

about the author