Outside a hundred visiting Indian scholars sang to you, mother’s voice surging before the others like someone in a choir who forgets and lets her voice lift above the rest; even the hired help from town carrying away pots of saltwater and lobster shells joined in as if they were singing for the one child of theirs to make good. As a child I always thought of corporations as lakes, corporate plants lying outside cities like state parks. When mother said you were speaking before one I thought of you standing at the edge of one of those narrow beaches that fringe lakes, in the background the clatter of waves dropping things, silverware sliding off trays. Mother made us say outloud the names of businesses you had saved, names of cities you were traveling to; this is how we learned geography. She peeled apples by the fire, Sundays, her voice rising, “Your father is like God. I do not wish you boys ever to forget that,” her voice growing stern, reaching into the unlit parts of the house. You would be gone for days, we used your furniture in place of you, curling in whatever made a lap for us, we took turns crawling into your bed, scratching the finish off, its softened patina wadding under our nails like sunlight that had been caking there for years. I hated silence. Silence kept you well, kept you well-provided for like interest from a trust someone who had loved you long ago had left you, silence, summer estate you invested so much in, adding on rooms, parading naked on its verandas, silence my brothers and I trespassed on like tourists asking directions. I hated you for the shynesses I caused you, listening to you belt yourself back into the dark on the other side of the car; we rode from Boston to Cape Cod, every night, listening to each other’s hands. Father, I thought you were waiting for me to begin, for me to say the words that would let you love me. As a child I knew if I were to touch you I would hurt you more than could be borne; at thirteen knowing if I were to rest my hand on your thigh, let it graze the stubble on your cheek, we would swerve be flung out of our seats crashing, the space between us dissolving, its sugars clouding the cold clear water of the poles. We would drown, breaking through ice like brothers trying to save each other, borne down by each other’s weight drowning in each other’s arms.
If we listed the right things, if we calmed ourselves with long lists, we need not be afraid of girls in hallways, of having to stand up and give our names Lists of songs we could sing all the way through, lists of earring boxes of dirt our fathers brought us back from Guadacanal, our uncles from Honolulu or Haiti black sand, volcanic ash, swamp dirt, dark brown soil from the houses our fathers lived in as children, a dry white dust from China Do you see how even this list rescues us? is spread out, drawn taut at the corners, sags in the middle a little with our weight, covers us sinking into it it smells of old blankets We listed girls we thought pretty, boys we never dared invite over, indexed file boxes of books we had read and the date we had read them, lists of places our fathers had been baseball cards, minor league prospects, trades, all star teams, scores of games we played against ourselves, each in front of his garage, batting orders, defensive lines, seating plans, guest lists for parties we never dared have We would come home from school and sit by our windows and think hard about when to place where adding one, replacing another, rearranging orders until the light dimmed and the room was grey and cold and we had to stop and lift our hands to see what we had written lists of sick animals we had nursed in cardboard boxes from the state store, birds we had seen and where, lists of knots we could tie, of games we could beat our fathers at, color-coded lists of dreams, soft blue dreams, lavender dreams, deep red dreams, grey dreams, dreams listed in black permanent inks Do you remember the names on your list? I remember mine, I remember what order they hit in, in what order I would have danced with them
In the cathedral damp of gymnasiums space guyed up and girdered I learned to pray, watching others sink to their knees on hardwood floors. I was always slipping to the backs of lines letting others take my turn, fastening to the spaces they left. Tell me how to live with these hands? runts, puny wingless larva? weak sisters, this litter of fingers nudging and nuzziing each other? I held my eyes shut till they stung knowing if I opened them I would forget everything Watching boys go stiff in a man’s hands be flipped over slung back, slammed between rungs boys twirling till they blur and flicker like spokes Boys swinging out at the end of heavy searope the gymnasium listing like an old fortress of a ship, a cathedral swamping with too much ballast, boys clinging to its rigging Our confessor, catechist that father to whom all our fathers have offered us up barely moving his lips as if we were not worth the words that would save us — children he was waiting to disinherit, coaching us, drilling us till our bodies fell away like temptations I felt the air hollowed peeled back from my arms and legs — the lines teased forward each boy twisting at the stem breaking off, another already healing behind him like the scar of a leaf. I threw my hands before my face, trying to field my father’s flies, trying to stiffen into the recognizable shapes of my classmates; I tried not to tremble, knowing if you were to see me trembling, to guess how much of my life is spent in dread I would never heal over into a man, I would never grow to be a man in that dim world I guessed at as I guessed at God Hands sweating, waiting my turn like a boy before confession trying to remember sins waiting, unable to move unable to place my hands anywhere as if I were wearing someone else’s body I was afraid to touch As if I had to lift someone else’s body off mine before I could move.
(For E.H. B., d. 1972)
At four I made a pact not to see, finding my way home blind, practicing going blind as animals, blue-white blurring over the irises of old cats, dogs’ eyes, crusted like shells still hinged together, I have made myself remember nothing only this barn, this ghostship long before Havens’ father shot himself there, history landlocked through whose cracked slats in the root cellar we crawled, whispering each other’s name in the troughs of darkness our fingers curling our bodies rigid, fisting, as if we could tighten our muscles and make ourselves slighter crouching after hands we lifted before our faces, reaching into the haysweet dust, afraid to run our palms over the sweaty shanks of beasts more tremendous than any ever stabled here; stealing among a shadowy livestock as if their troubled thighs would sway and sidle each other, crushing us between; darkness hung over us like huge sides of raw beef; you made me listen for the sounds of animals being slaughtered, for the man with the apron to swell out of dusky blood, to stumble toward us, lifting his smeared apron over us; you shrieking, “look, look,” making me follow you up ladders, up the loose rigging of your dreams, pulling me up after you into all those high, forbidden places you had to go, crowsnests you yanked me up and into, brushing the cobwebs from my face; if I ever catch you, the hired woman scolded, if I hear you have bothered those poor Havens, father threatened; after their father’s suicide, the barn was ours, queer town character whose face leaned to one side, snow fences sagging like argyle socks around its ankles, slow child we threw stones at till everything we could break was broken manning the barn, urinating from haylofts, raising each other up through trapdoors, story by story, your hands curling mine around the rungs that held, making me climb chute ladders straight up, making me lean over landings and look down afraid to fall, to show how much I was afraid, stiffening till I felt the damp spaces between my body and my clothes; I do not recall your face at 31, pale, chafed by your refusal to cry, your voice, patient, pitiless as if it had been husked already of the love we had felt for you, I recall a few words, winnowings, these hard seeds I hold now in my hands only this barn, you leading me up ladders to its loft making me look straight down, five flights down, making me watch you swing over the chute, your nine-year-old arms barely touching both sides, letting your legs edge over into the emptiness, your body almost bear you down hanging there, crying look, look
Christopher, my godson, namesake learn to make shift with names only, households of gathered names, buttercombs, coddlers, sifters, the names of wildflowers, their kitchen sounds: butter-and-eggs, bedstraw, partridge peas, may apple, bee balm, milkwort, inkberry, innocence, names cluttered like kitchens that are always warm and steamy from being used, the black under kitchen porcelain, taste of apple and brown sugar on the sides of wooden spoons, coffee and flour smells of old cookbooks, smells of dishtowels drying, stone steps just scrubbed drying, warmth of gloves taken off radiators and out on, of stones warmed and laid under covers. You can live without these but not without the thought of them, the fragrances names recall like old aunts talking about the first time they smelled lilacs or after a long journey the ocean long before they saw it; the imported ales of early afternoon, the last daylight watered down like local beer, homemade blackberry cordials our fathers let us stay up and sip, whose peel we could taste on our lips all the next day. The aromas names add to colors: saffron, ivory, turquoise, cochineal, jasper, starflower, mandarin red, mauve, beryl, burn blue, indigo, tangerine, amethyst, amber. Even after our families shall vanish like great ships built poorly built hurriedly, arcs drifting, old farmhouses floating away from their farms we shall remember them like the names of battleships that sunk in some great war we forgot who started; the old quarrels of our families forgotten as we forget the stories we read as children, we remember this: names of other children on the inside covers of old books, the names of characters our mothers made up stories about, the names of drinking friends of our fathers or boys our mothers had crushes on in high school, the names our mothers and fathers used to fight about, names we still remember like the feel of a grown-up’s pocket, lint, keys, loose change we were allowed to count out and keep.