National Air Lines shipped me at the age of twelve
from New Orleans, Louisiana
to Portland, Oregon
where I was collected by my father and my uncle
both of whom considered me some kind of prize
in the great American break-up sweepstakes.
I told them about the people I met on the plane.
First, a shoe-shine boy my age from Rio de Janeiro
that some rich man in LA was importing from Brazil.
He was quite a talker.
He showed me newspaper clippings
and articles from American magazines about
the boot-black who learned half-a-dozen languages
while shining shoes for men who had money.
He wanted me to be impressed and I admit
it seemed a fabulous life, and I was far too young
to imagine what some rich patron in the US
might want with the handsome urchin beyond a shine.
On the change-over from LA I sat with a man who
likewise was quite a talker.
He showed me photos of a dozen different women
in his wallet all of whom he claimed to know
in the most biblical of several senses. He talked
the whole way up to Oregon about his talents with the gals
until my head fairly rang with possibilities.
I told my father and my uncle about both of these
and if they shared a look between them I did not see it,
but I remember it seemed strange that people wished
to talk so much about themselves with me.
It seemed strange because I was so very young
yet they were trying to impress me.
Later at my father’s apartment he cajoled me
to admit that I hated my mother. I didn’t mind.
(It’s what she did for him, too.) She had a new man,
didn’t she? And that was how she came to give me up,
wasn’t it? But I could never bring myself to tear
one parent down to the other. They were both so fragile,
and I am not naturally cruel.
I remember Daddy had a stereo console
but no television. He owned a Dean Martin lp
with Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime
and a Roger Miller lp and a Chet Atkins instrumental lp
and that is all he had. We listened to the records
as he told me about a waitress at the Sambo’s
pancake restaurant who he thought had a thing for him.
Then he told me my mother was the only woman
he could ever love. Then Roger Miller sang
One Dying and a Burying and he told me that he
felt like that all the time. He made me sleep
in his bed and he held me while he wept and
I was ashamed of him and angry that he couldn’t seem
to handle how it had all turned out for him.
The next morning we went for pancakes
and my Dad put the moves on the waitress.
She was really pretty, and he was right, she liked him.
But what I remember is thinking that
He’s doing this for me. He’s trying to impress me.
Years later I killed him.
It is complicated, but I sent him away
and cut him out of my life forever
and he died of it eventually.
My mother died years before that.
I’d cut her free as well, in a way.
I’m kind of a nasty little bastard, to tell the truth.
Today a man came in to where I work and he sold some records.
He had the Chet Atkins album my father had owned.
It was in pristine condition. I held it in my hands and
all these memories came flooding back, prompting this
grotesquerie, this imitation of a poem.
Now, for one of the few times in my life,
I am trying to tell something without art.
This verse form is convenient in that it helps me focus
but there is no thought behind the length of line
no technique behind the choice of words.
I am telling a story I have never really told before.
I am doing what my father did;
I am trying to impress my children.
But I am not my father. My children are all grown.
This is just a little piece of who I am,
a man like all the other men who’ve ever lived,
who loves and hates his father all at once,
and can cherish the one thing of his Daddy’s
that is true because it has no words.