Tough Guy

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for Henry Brautigan

 

 

The Brooklyn apartment on Fenimore Street

had high ceilings and arched doorways.

My brother Bob was the apple of your eye

but I was the one you taught how to draw

pictures of a tree, a man’s face,

a rowboat near a lake.

After supper, in her favorite chair,

Mama read the comics to Bob.

I was at the dining table, with you,

a sketchbook, charcoals and pastels.

Quiet as a lamb, I almost never spoke

when near you.  Seven, skinny,

and sinless as a jellyfish,

I was silly with the mystery of childhood.

Still, Papa, somehow you conveyed to me

quiet is where you go to get soul things out.

 

There is a photograph of you, looking serious

in your soldier’s uniform.  My mother said

you were a “tough guy.”  You came home “sailing”

and told my grandmother, “I was gonna knock

his block off but I’d see your face, Annie.”

This seems odd to me as I only knew

the old gentleman – impeccably dressed,

manicured nails, a perfectly tended mustache.

Once, at Thanksgiving time, you won a live turkey,

came home, put it in the bathtub, and went to bed.

Eighty-two now, my mother laughs when she tells

how that turkey nearly scared her to death.

 

Coney Island night noises, crowds and rides

surround you as you survey the boardwalk,

the rollercoaster, a giant doodle against the sky.

Couples walk along the edge of the water,

barefoot and hungry but too moonstruck

to leave the beach and eat hot dogs at Nathan’s.

 

Summer just beginning and only a tough guy

could let the memory of that winter morning

come full force again like a punch in the heart.

There was a blizzard and the doctor was drunk

so you delivered your own and only son.

Stillborn, you placed his silent body

on a pillow and wept while your Annie

whispered your name as if it were a prayer.

 

Today, at church, the children put on a pageant

celebrating the Three Kings and the Epiphany.

Baby Jesus was a girl.  No one seemed to mind.

Last year a Guatemalan baby named Juan,

in this country for surgery, played Jesus.

Several months after his return to Guatemala,

he died of cholera.  This Guatemalan Jesus

is in some way connected to my dead infant uncle.

 

How quiet it was fishing from the rowboat with Papa,

Early in the morning, how quiet and how green.

How quiet it was, after supper, at the table,

watching Papa place his pastels gently in their box.

 

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