I am like a cat on the couch rubbing
my face–nose, mouth, cheeks–across
the blue velvet. This couch is my father’s
money, a small forgotten-about portion
left to the three kids he had first
and left first. No, he didn’t forget us
but he didn’t remember us either, not the way
the phone company he’d worked for through all
its identity crises had remembered that once,
possibly with a blue pen, my father had signed
our names and his name on company insurance documents.
My father’s money, too, bought the giltwood, caneback
chairs dressed in golden yellow upholstery and a blue,
white, and gold bracelet. And some bottles of wine
and several ice cream cones and a pound of unground
coffee. It may even have bought something hanging
in my small closet though I don’t remember now
and even if I were to push the hangers one by
one down the painted rail, I couldn’t be sure
I’d recognize my father. I am not a cat and the coffee
is long spent and the chairs are only chairs and my father
was a little too surprised when I wore a pretty black dress
and red lipstick to see him in the hospital his last
Christmas. And even when I scroll through my bank statement
sometimes and look for the small portion of the small portion
I’ve stuck into savings I see a little grace, I see a little
security, I do not see my father.
*I wrote this draft on September 6 after writing my morning pages when I didn’t really think I’d been thinking about my father at all.
My father lived with us till I was about eight going on nine. I have plenty of memories of being a tween with him and I have plenty of memories of visiting my father’s father and stepmother with both my mom and dad as a kid. But I have very few memories of him in the house with us, partly I suppose because our schedules were opposite–he worked nights, and I worked days, so to speak. We lived in a semi-detached house adjacent to a string of vacant storefronts (at least I don’t remember any actually businesses) that were constantly burning down. (Ultimately they paved paradise and put up a Burger King and its parking lot.) This poem is based on a faint memory I have of watching the building closest to us burn one night.
Theme and Variations on a December Night
We stand at the window, my sister and I
the house next door burning, our house
night-hushed but for the hum
of sleepy eyes opening, closing.
Houses further down our neck of
Merrick Road empty
their families, parade of sneakers, slippers,
bare feet. Arms wide with books
and photographs and children. My father
urges our small faces to the window
overhead his camera sighs and clicks.
I don’t wonder how long Daddy will wait
before herding us to the street. I know
we won’t leave—this time or the twice more
that house burns. I know already
my father will choose another time to leave
arms wide with books and photographs.
We are always practicing for fires.
We stand at the window.
I want to remember so
I can tell the story of us watching. So
I can tell a story about not leaving.
There is a window.
I am standing at the window.
At the window I am standing
my blue gingham nightgown blinking.
A house next door burns.
Next door a house is burning.
One house in a long block of houses.
In a long row of houses
end to end chimney to chimney
a girl watches.
Books and photographs are carried by others.
A burning house is left by others.
There are books. There are photographs. There are children.
this bird wing
for the father
to arrive the father
to show his awesome powers
know with uncertainty the father
the underbelly of salvation
his great burning wings
the relentless gossip
of fire her skin