I hauled crap out of the storage room all morning before I found the poetry books. Two of them, thin and flimsy paperbacks trapped under a stack of brick-like college textbooks. They had such odd titles, St. Judas and Body Rags, and I'd never heard of those writers, James Wright and Galway Kinnell. The textbooks made sense, leftovers from my parents' college years, but poetry, in Brockton, Mass.? My mother didn't read anything besides the Bible and cookbooks and my father never read anything thicker than a newspaper.
I put the poetry books aside. I was on a mission, turning the storage room into a bedroom. For two months, I made a pain in the ass of myself about a room of my own. Jennifer, my ten-year-old sister, had her room and they still kept one for Kevin—no matter that he'd been dead for nearly a year and a half—leaving me, a junior in high school, stuck with Alex, my nine-year-old runt of a brother.
I tried logic and persuasion; I tried shouting. My mother sighed and listed all the reasons the storage room wouldn't work: I'd be all alone downstairs; the tiny window wouldn't let in enough light; I'd get lonely without my brother; there'd barely be enough room for even my bed and dresser. "You might think it's a good idea," she told me while wiping her hands on a dish towel, "but trust me, Bobby, you'd hate it in there."
I couldn't ask for Kevin's room, that would be too creepy. Anyway, she'd never let me move into the shrine. Seventeen months since he went back to Yale, fifteen months since he died, his bed still made, the basketball trophies arranged on his bureau, valedictorian plaque on the wall, clothes still hanging as if my parents thought he'd show up one night and ask for the stupid Hawaiian shirt he thought made him look so cool.
My mother's the only one who goes in there. She sits on Kevin's bed, plumps his pillow and talks to herself or to him, I don't know for sure. Sometimes she clutches her rosary, her head bent, carefully fingering each bead. I did notice that she'd taken down the Gwen Stefani poster—her tits hanging out, her lips all puckered up; I guess that didn't fit the memory my mother decided to keep.
This morning—in the kitchen full of the smell of the only bacon my mother lets us eat all week—I asked about the storage room one more time. My mother put one hand on her hip, and waved a spatula at me. She'd always been big, but since Kevin died, she'd grown huge. She'd given up her job as a lawyer, so she never wears her business suits anymore, just sweat suits with drawstrings around her waist. "Not again," she said, "can't you let it go?"
I didn't and we argued until my father let the pages of the Globe droop, rolled his eyes and said, "Enough already—if you clean out the back room, we'll see how it looks." My mother crossed her arms and glared at him, then me.
After all that, I couldn't get the storage room door to open. I lowered my shoulder and rammed the door—thwump. I drove back a fallen tower of boxes. What a mess. Black plastic garbage bags, piles of clothes, all sorts of stuff. A busted up loveseat lay crushed beneath Kevin's old barbells. The room had become the place where we dumped the things that broke, wore out, grew useless, but couldn't quite give away or throw out.
I saw a collapsed easel, cracked and chipped test tubes from a chemistry set I got for my tenth birthday, fake money strewn under the window, and red and blue plastic tokens spilling out of games I once loved. Kevin and I played Stratego all the time; he called it little kid's chess, and when I won, I knew it was only because he let me.
The room stank of mothballs or something, the same musty stench that comes from the bedrooms in my grandmother's house. My throat began to itch. All the junk made the room feel tiny; I could almost hear my mother saying, "Sweetheart, that's really just a closet and calling it a bedroom won't change a thing."
I kicked at a bag of something soft, shoved and pulled at more piles, knocked into my father's Nordic track machine, nearly tripped as I made my way toward the back wall and the white frame window. I unlatched it and, after three tries, forced it open. Outside, the freshly mowed lawn rolled cool and green to the tree line. Beneath the window, my mother knelt in her garden, scooping out mounds of peat moss and pressing it with her fingers to firm up the tomato plant stalks.
"Where do you want this junk?" I called to her.
"Put the things we want to keep down in the basement. Then make two piles. We'll take one to St. Vincent de Paul; the other goes out with the garbage on Monday night."
I dragged the big bags of old clothes and didn't bother checking them out, just towed them to the curb. I reached for an old Filene's shopping bag and sliced my hand on a candleholder—a lame arts and crafts project from my summer at Camp Alvernia. I sucked the cut until it stopped bleeding. I pulled stuff from the heap: an ice cream maker we used no more than once, Alex's inflatable dinosaur, an oversized ceramic bowl inscribed 1998 PTA Mother of the Year. I folded empty boxes from computers, a printer and a fax machine. Spotting a copper Empire State Building in a milk crate filled with junk, I put it aside to keep in my new room.
I found two of Kevin's Citizen of the Month certificates curled inside a shoebox. Kevin with the right words, Kevin with the curly hair, Kevin tall and lean. Everything cake for him, not a goddamn thing wrong in his world and everyone loved him for it. Last summer, taking a break from weeding the back walkway, I stretched out on the grass. My father came walking out of the garage and said, "Kevin used to smile so much, I wish you could do that more often."
"Kevin didn't have a brother who died."
My father opened his mouth, raised his hand as if to speak, then shook his head and walked away, too late for me to take back my words.
At school, I heard it all the time. "Your brother was a wonderful boy," no one wanting to come right out and say, "Why can't you be more like him?" They talked about his promise, about the future he could've had. My biology teacher dropped yet another lousy test on my desk, his face full of pity and disgust, then squatted next to me to say, "You could make your parents proud, if only you applied yourself."
Of course, they don't talk about how nothing Kevin did in high school mattered, none of the years of hoops practice, none of the report cards taped to the refrigerator, the newspaper articles or the list of awards. He still went to that frat party and we'll never really know who said what to whom, if Kevin was a peacemaker or an instigator, or merely a bystander. We only know there was the fight. Kevin landed on his head at just the wrong angle—an inch too far—and he never got up.
If I was always the second son, Kevin had grown more perfect since he died; I'd grown worse. Now my mother watches me all the time, goes through my knapsack, warns about "that crowd you're in with," even if Teddy and I don't exactly constitute a crowd. It's the usual stuff from parents, only multiplied ten times. Who will you be with? How late will you be out? "I know you want to drive, but you need to understand how dangerous it is," even if I'm the only junior at Cardinal Spellman without a license.
Lose one son, save the others, even if she gets pissed at me for being the one who lived. I tell her that if I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die. She gets all shaky, her face flustered and quickly blesses herself. "Oh honey, don't even joke like that." Then she hugs me—not sure where to put her arms—and I wish she'd stop.
In the late morning, I came across the piles of books in the far corner, mostly old college textbooks: Medieval Architecture and the Cathedral, Macro and Microeconomics, History of Ancient Civilizations and Collected Shakespeare. That's where I found the poetry books. I sat against the wall and flipped the pages. Inside the back cover a stamp read, "Property of the Emerson College Library." Not textbooks, for sure, and Emerson College? My mother had gone to BC, my father to BU—as if I didn't have enough t-shirts and sweatshirts to remind me.
I scanned the titles—"Complaint," "The Refusal," "At the Executed Murderer's Grave"—read a few lines about a drunken old man. In school, they force-fed us stupid singsong rhymes or poems so old that the English sounded like another language. They told us the poems were good for us, made us read about things that couldn't possibly matter—urns and a chambered nautilus—Mr. Blondell droning on in that high-pitched nasal sound he makes, "Now class, this is a very famous poem." And yes, it would be on the test.
The poems in these books, they were different—words I recognized, words I could speak, yet they felt strange, strung together in a way that gave them a whole new meaning: bones, pain, lung, blood.
A breeze blew through the window and the sweat on my back gave me a chill. I grew hungry, but didn't want to stop for lunch. Outside, Alex and my father, back from Little League practice, played catch in the backyard. With me too slow for the other sports, it had been football, my father crouching down so I could block him. I lost interest as it became more serious—hard to see me hanging out with the jocks at Spellman.
I picked up a dented chest filled with photos and souvenirs—trips to Disney World and Niagara Falls. I dug out a slingshot from the annual Labor Day Pow-Wow at the Shinnecock Reservation near my aunt's summer house. Underneath that chest, I discovered an old radio so I closed the door, plugged it in, tuned in the U. Mass-Boston station and filled the room with Dr. Filth and his Medicine Cup's furious hip-hop.
My mother stuck her head in the door. "Turn it down, Robert."
She moved towards the kitchen and I slammed the door behind her. How different it would be not sharing a room with Alex, who burrowed through my privacy like a rat in the town dump. I thought of the final incident that made my own room a necessity. I'd been reading Siddhartha over the Easter break, and flattened a yoga book on the floor, crossed my legs, raised my arms overhead, twisted them and breathed deeply, then deeply again. Alex flung the door open and tumbled into laughter. I could hear him squealing, "Mom, you gotta see what Bobby's doing now."
Marching me to the living room, my mother patted the cushion on the couch for me to sit next to her and she spoke in the concerned tones of a TV psychiatrist, asking why Siddhartha, why yoga?
"Have you even read the book?" I asked.
I told her that Brother Shane, my religion teacher, suggested I read it. That stopped her—a teacher, a Brother—but I knew she didn't like him. Months earlier, at a PTA meeting, parents complained about Brother Shane. My mother came home to tell my father, "How could a teacher tell his students that he wants to confuse them?" She kept smacking the back of her hand into her other palm. "We send the boy to that school to learn what he should believe, to remind him what's right, not to tear things down."
I'm not one for doing chores, but the very act of hauling boxes down to the basement felt good, as if for the first time in my life, I could create something meaningful. The gray dust the cardboard left on my hands didn't bother me, nor did the way it clogged my nostrils, no matter how many times it sent me into sneezing and coughing fits. I took perverse pleasure in the black goop I blew into the red bandana I used as a handkerchief. The more crap I dragged out, the more I could see the black and white checkerboard pattern on the floor, the more I unearthed a new world.
Tugging at a red plastic handle, I yanked out an old slot car racing set I'd gotten for Christmas—how many years ago? Second grade? Each Thanksgiving weekend my father and I had laid out a new configuration—an oval with loops one year, a figure eight the next—always a new one ready for Christmas. I had held the tracks while he twisted wires and tightened connections; I could almost smell the stink of the soldering iron. I used to think that smell represented the skills, the magic, that only adults possessed.
On the first Saturday of each December, my father and I, just the two of us, set out on a day long hunt for slot car accessories. We stopped at the expensive two-story hobby shop in Framingham, drove as far west as Leominster to visit an overcrowded toy store—it was full of dusty and dented orange boxes crammed on sagging shelves—then swung south through Worcester where a slot car club held its annual holiday swap meet.
We always stopped at the same deli for lunch, my father buying oversized roast beef sandwiches lathered with horseradish—he swore we couldn't get sandwiches like that anywhere else. In the afternoon, he held my thumbs, showing me how to pry off the miniature tires to inspect the tiny axles for damage. My father had these long, bony fingers; they were so strong, yet, I don't know, gentle. He taught me how to haggle with the balding fat guy in Worcester. The fat guy leaned his puffy and flaking face close to mine, his belly pushing up his shirt, and wheezed through years of cigarettes. "You remind me of me, so I'm going to give you a special deal."
At dinner, my father regularly threw me a glance, jabbed his thumb up and down, pantomiming the controls, and I knew that afterward we'd go down to the basement to race a few times, cars flying off the track as we pressed for speed. It had been three years since we'd set up the track. Last Thanksgiving, my mother asked if we would get back to the old custom. I peeked over at my father. We both shrugged.
I stuffed the whole set into a box and lugged it toward the curb. My father wandered around the front lawn picking up fallen twigs and branches. Tracks stuck out of the top of the box, wires hung down from the transformer. I imagined that I would've done it again, that I wouldn't have minded a trip back out to that swap meet to see if the bright yellow Lemans race car had finally showed up. My father saw me look across the lawn and gave a half smile. He bent down to pick up another stick. I flung the box on top of the garbage pile.
Back in the storage room, I picked up the poetry books again and read about a man who drowned and a kid needing to tell someone what he saw, but afraid he'd get in trouble. I read it three times, and it scared me, made me think of the secrets I couldn't let my parents know, couldn't let anyone know. The times I imagined sneaking into Kevin's room: I found him stretched out on his bed and asked him why and what happened next and was Mom right about Jesus and God, and he wouldn't even look at me, so I punched him over and over until his nose smeared across his face. I remembered the day last month when I cut school and rode the train into South Station. I vowed that I would finally leave home, left a note under my pillow about how I needed my own life. I almost got on three different Amtrak expresses to New York and I would have if each time I stood up I hadn't nearly puked—afraid to leave, I hated myself for staying. I hunched over my knapsack hoping no one would recognize me.
I tried to make sense of these things, tried one night with Teddy and a stolen six-pack of Coors Light behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I told him what Holden Caulfield said, told him about the trap of expectations and how Eminem had dropped out of the ninth grade and begun freelancing with rap groups "while we're getting fat and stupid in Brockton, Mass.—City of friggin' Champions."
When we wound up in silence, I thought of Kevin and felt so angry, so helpless. I screamed at no one, just screamed until my chest and throat hurt. "He fell down. He banged his head. You're supposed to get up."
Teddy said, "Oh man, let's just get drunk," and crushed an empty can with his boot.
Those books, those poems seemed to understand, seemed full of desperate thoughts. No citizens of the month, only the weird, the freaks, the outsiders. Which of my parents could have spent time with those poems? Which of them once believed in "Saint Judas?" I picked up the other book and fixed on lines that twisted the story of the phoenix, not asking to rise from the ashes, but to be the flame itself. Those poems sounded like the Gospels and Psalms I'd heard in church all my life, but different; they had a rush of rock and roll, but different; they spoke in a logic that I couldn't explain, but could follow. The words felt jagged, dangerous—definitely not something my parents would read. Saying them aloud, I felt a shock as if the voice in the poems knew exactly what I felt, as if the voice came from inside my own mind and whispered, "There's more, much more."
When my mother called us to dinner, I came carrying the two library books, holding them out like evidence. I dropped them on the table, rattling the silverware.
"What are those?" my mother asked. My father, busy pouring glasses of water, didn't pick his head up. Jennifer immediately reached across the table, grabbing the top book; Alex lunged for the second.
"Found them in a stack in the back of my room—they're from Emerson College."
My father squinted at the book covers; his jaw tightened.
Jennifer let out an exaggerated gasp and said, "This book is so overdue; it was supposed to be back on November 3, 1976. That's…twenty-three years late."
My mother turned toward my father. "Those must be from when you worked at Emerson, Bill." My father continued to unfold his napkin and placed it on his lap as if she had not said a word.
"You worked at Emerson, what did you do there?" My mother had told the story of my father so often that I knew I would have heard about him teaching at a college.
"Oh, it was nothing," he said in the way that parents speak when they're trying to hide something. "Pass the broccoli."
I asked again.
He scooped some soggy stalks of broccoli onto his plate. He reached for the salad dressing. I knew he could feel my eyes locked on him.
"I worked there as a custodian right after graduating college."
I didn't understand—a janitor? I ran through the facts of my father's life—college, law school, the Mayor's office, Aetna Insurance, State Farm, never the boss, but always something that sounded serious, that required white shirts with dark suits. Never a janitor. Why hide it? Last year when I told them that I wanted to work for Mr. Santiago's landscaping crew, my first paying job, one that would help me get in shape, get a tan, my mother said, ‘I don't think that's a good idea,' and looked at my father.
‘Son,' my father said, idly spinning his fork, ‘I know you won't understand; it's not too early to start building your résumé.'
‘But it's only a summer job,' I said.
My mother arranged an internship at Councilman Geraghty's Office, the same post that Kevin held three years earlier. I think she wanted to see Kevin, to pull him back: no Yale, no party, no fight and no funeral.
My mother told Jennifer to put the books down, that we had to say grace. We bowed our heads and Alex said the words. I studied my father's face—the high forehead, the eyes that never showed any emotion, the sturdiness, the predictability. Nothing had ever been out of line.
Alex finished the prayer. The seat where Kevin would have sat remained empty—did he know?
"You were a janitor? Like Bearded Tom at my school?" Alex asked, his voice full of glee. "A janitor, how cool."
"Don't be silly," my mother said.
Alex could barely contain himself, saying, "So you got to run all the machines and hang out in the janitor's closet?"
My father smiled at Alex and said, "I only did it one summer." Alex peppered him with more questions, the whys and how-comes that came across as cute.
My father described the job—cleaning the library and the gym, waxing floors, sweeping hallways, emptying trashcans, dusting books. "They made us scrub the little scuff marks off the racquetball court walls and yes, I even cleaned the toilets."
Jennifer giggled. My mother forced a croak of a laugh and said, "A professional—but do you think I can get him to help around the house now?" She patted the back of my father's hand. "But I love him anyway."
My father actually squirmed in his seat—my father, tall and muscular like the basketball player he'd once been, my father, whose every step seemed measured and plotted, all straight lines and right angles. He said, "There's nothing wrong with being a janitor" in a way that confessed there was everything wrong with it and he was sorry.
I didn't want him to be sorry, didn't want him to apologize. When my mother explained that what mattered was where we were today—a loving family, the house, their careers, the new kitchen, the Catholic schools, the golf club and the summers on the Cape, and each of us could go to the college of our choice—I wanted to scream. Did she pretend that Kevin hadn't died? Did she have no idea about me? Did she lie only to us or did she lie to herself too?
I quietly said, "Maybe I'll be like Dad and become a janitor."
My mother slowly laid her fork across her plate. "Must you always be like that?" She stared as if willing me to back down and I knew that she only saw her "large-boned" child, her "problem" child. "Sweetheart, we've always said that you should be what you want, but we hope you take advantage of your talents and opportunities. We only want . . ."
I refused to make eye contact. I wouldn't allow her to suck me into her argument; I wanted to know about the job as a janitor, about the books, about my father—what else was there?
He and my mother exchanged glances that contained whole years of conversation. My father looked at Alex, while checking me out of the corner of his eye. "It would have been smarter to start my career right away instead of wasting my time."
"Come on, Dad. Tell the truth," I said before I even thought about it.
He snapped his head to look at me, then pushed back into his chair. He and my mother spoke at the same time. My mother said, "Your father is telling the truth, he's only trying to help you, to teach you."
My father said, "Robbie, what do you want me to tell you?"
What did I want him to tell me? I wanted to know that he was like me, that he had no idea what he wanted, yet he knew exactly what he didn't want. Teddy and I talked about it all the time—get out of Brockton, nothing that involves a clock, a suit, a boss, or a deadline. After Brother Shane gave me On the Road, I told Teddy, "I want to wake up in the East Village, my clothes in tatters but my soul burning."
I wanted my father to go on, to tell us more. I groped for the right words and slowly, tentatively, I asked, "You were a slacker?"
He struck one of those looks that pinned me back to childhood. "No, that's not it at all. You take a job, work hard and good things happen."
I could almost see my father reaching for the shelf in his mind to pull down another tidy lesson like the time I brought home that seventh grade report card, the first of many blotted with C's and even a D. My father had climbed the stairs after work, chased Alex away and sat on the edge of my bed, rubbing his hands. He asked me about school.
I told him about teachers I didn't like, books I forgot, things I didn't understand, stupid things they made us learn.
He never mentioned Kevin and his A's. He spoke softly, evenly. "Make it easy on yourself, Robbie. Think of school as a job." He stood up and put his hands in his pockets. "Put in your time, give them what they want, don't fight the rules and then come home and relax."
Last report card, he drew a heavy breath before opening the envelope, stared for a long time at the C in English, the C in math, the D in history, and chewed his lower lip. I started to explain, but he held up a hand and said, "I don't want to hear all the reasons you can't get it done. Do the assignments, study for the tests, ask the teachers for help."
"It's not that simple," I said.
"It is, son." He handed the report card back to me. "You keep fighting, keep resisting, just do what they ask and you'll have all the success you need."
This time I refused to listen. I escaped to the kitchen with my plate. Alone with the new refrigerator, the curtains with the precious yellow flowers which—my mother pointed out to all who listened—perfectly matched the pattern in the Mexican tile on the walls, I swore I wouldn't let this happen, wouldn't accept the cleaned up version. He must've been a mess and that's what I wanted, the huge swirling mess.
I came back and stood over my father. "I'm trying to understand. You did this after you graduated, you didn't even go to Emerson, you weren't taking any classes, but you took these books out anyway?"
"You don't think I checked them out?" My father pointed his fork at me, and then softened his tone to say with a forced grin, "I'm not a criminal."
"No, no, I meant that no one made you read these, you did it on your own."
Jennifer and Alex lost interest and whispered to each other. I sat down in Kevin's chair. "What about the books, Dad? What was it about these poems?"
My father looked down at the scraps of his steak and at the remains of his baked potato. He shook his head and then looked at me, not quite in the eyes. "I read poetry for school, nothing very special. Just like you, I read a lot, but you can't take it too seriously."
"What the hell's that mean?" I asked so sharply that both Jennifer and Alex stopped talking.
My mother quickly spoke. "Has everyone had enough to eat?" She looked at my father in the same way she looks at me when I do something wrong.
My father put his silverware on his plate and faced Alex. "Did you tell your big brother about your hitting today? You keep that elbow up when you swing, and you're going to have a great season." He picked up his plate and walked away.
I returned to my old room, pulled a sweatshirt down from the closet shelf and unplugged the reading lamp next to my bed. I went back to the storage room. The sunset angled through the window, casting a long shadow on the checkerboard floor. I plugged in the reading lamp and could see the gunk on the linoleum floor, a weird brown liquid that had hardened and some mushy yellow stuff that bubbled along the wall. I got a scraper from the tool bench in the garage, kneeled down and began prying the crud from the floor. I wedged the scraper under the yellow stuff and it peeled up like the skin of an orange. It took me a good forty minutes to scrape everything off the floor.
I brought in a bucket of warm water, an oversized sponge and some ammonia. I poured the ammonia on the linoleum—its smell stinging, tearing my eyes—squeegeed out some water and scrubbed the floor. I wanted it absolutely clean. The sun had fallen below the horizon leaving a soft blue sky. I moved the reading lamp to shine on the next section of the floor. My knees ached. The ammonia hurt my lungs. I scrubbed harder.
When finished, I sat against the wall with only the radio, the miniature Empire State Building, the reading lamp and the two books of poetry. A Jamaican DJ played some music I'd never heard before.
I gazed toward the ceiling and the space felt so large as if the roof would give way to a vast sky. My mother could not deny me this room. "My walls, my ceiling," I said aloud, my voice pinging off the bare walls. I could start a journal and not worry about being found out. I could paint the walls blue, that cobalt blue that comes late at night. On one long wall, I'd hang that poster of the Manhattan skyline, the one I saw at the mall, 'cause I knew someday I'd live in New York City. "It is your destiny," I said in a perfect Darth Vader voice. I'd build a collage on the other long wall, a testament to whom I had become. I'd start with posters: Escher drawings and Rushmore, Eminem on stage and sunrise over Provincetown. I'd layer in postcards and photos—portraits of Teddy, maybe the one of Kevin and me in the tire tubes on the Merrimack River. I'd put up pages from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, let my parents know that, yes, I can't stop staring at those breasts, those smooth stomachs, the lips moistened. Over the pictures, I'd paste quotes like Dan Bern's, "I saw a man with dreams/Like the ones I had/Beg quarters outside the 7-11," or maybe something from System Of A Down or Rage Against The Machine. As soon as possible, I had to get a lock for the door, had to keep out Jennifer and Alex, or worse—I couldn't have my mother snooping through my things.
I picked up the two library books, opened the first one and read poems about longing for women and losing those women. They described convicts, drunks, soldiers, prostitutes, killers, hunters, ghosts and animals, entire poems about a porcupine and a bear, poems where animals took on whole universes of meaning.
I tried to hear the lines in my father's voice. I couldn't. My father never read poetry. My father did not spend time by himself in meditation; he did not place a book down on the table, stare out the window and lose himself. My father seemed all surface, his world so neat, so organized. These poems spoke of chaos, a world of shadows, whispers, hidden intentions and death—no glorious resurrection, just death. I thought of Kevin and that stupid fight, how they could recite the facts, but no one—not the cops, not the teachers, not the priests, not my parents—could ever explain why Kevin died. At his funeral, Father Ryan said that Kevin had risen to a happier place, that he would be there to greet us all. I couldn't believe a word of it. I told my father and he bent over me, hugged me and whispered in my ear, "You have to believe, Robbie, you have to believe." When I tried to talk, he hugged me tighter and kept repeating, "You have to believe."
I read on about a lone man hunting a bear across the tundra with only his bare hands, his sheer desperation to stalk and kill his prey, and even that might not be enough to save him. He dragged himself across the frozen trail, sniffing at the faintest whiff of bear tracks, eating bear turds to stave off hunger. When he found the beast, he sliced him open and climbed inside, wrapped in his fur, gnawing on his meat. The terror of the poem washed over me and I shivered on the floor.
I stood up and pulled the window closed. Sometimes I didn't want to know, wished I could go back and do it over. Maybe if I had stuck with football, maybe if Kevin didn't die, maybe if I could stop thinking so goddamn much.
I picked up Body Rags again and some handwriting caught my eye. In an intense, small blue scribble, I read these lines:
My father of geometry
My eyes purpled, my lips split
I found my father in the family room sitting in his chair, a game board across his lap, halfway through dealing another hand of solitaire. My mother watched a home remodeling show on TV, her evening prayer book face down on the couch. She hid a chocolate chip cookie under a napkin. I opened the book to the first handwritten poem and lay it over his cards. He stopped moving his hands. My mother lowered the sound on the TV. My father looked up at me. "What are you doing?"
"Did you write that?"
He bent closer to the book. He shrugged.
"Dad, it's in your book."
"Not my book, a library book. Anyone could have written those lines."
He took a deep breath. "O.K.," he said, then quickly added, "but that was a long time ago, something I did as a kid." He put up a smile so false and feeble that he quickly gave up on it.
My mother turned the TV off and moved to the end of the couch near my father. She held the prayer book on her lap.
I took the book back and sat on the floor. I read both poems, careful with each word.
My mother said, "You don't want to do this."
I looked at my father. "Tell me about these poems, what do they mean? Why did you write them?"
He stacked the cards into a neat pile and put them on the table next to him. He leaned the board against the chair. "They're not exactly poems, just some lines."
"It's all a lie, isn't it? The walk the straight line, live by the rules speeches—you took any shitty job you could get, you wrote poetry."
"Robert," My mother yelled
"You didn't give a damn about school or grades or a career or doing the right damned thing."
My father ran his hand across his mouth. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Son." He stood up and walked to the far side of the room, picking up a small brass car from the bookshelf. He held it in his hand as if weighing it. He put it back on the shelf and turned to me. "Things happened, they're long past; you don't need to know about them."
I stood up. In the past year, I had nearly reached his height, so I tried to look him eye to eye, not as a challenge, more as a plea. "Dad, you have to tell me."
We moved to the kitchen table, round and white, a light fixture hanging over our heads. My father crossed his arms. "You only think you want to know." His voice had become little more than a whisper, raw and tired. Part of me knew he was right, that I should get up and walk away, let him remain the father I had known, let the world, as fucked up as it was, remain the same. That part of me—forever helpless—understood that whatever my father would say would only make things worse. His neck muscles relaxed; he laid his arms on the table so I could see the inside of his elbows. "I entered college with all A's, as square and solid as any high school principal would want from a student. I thought I knew the world and my parents and teachers all praised me for my poise, my confidence."
He grinned in a way that let me understand the word ruefulness for the first time. "But what did I know? Soon I learned that the history taught me in all my previous years was wrong. I took a class where the professor showed how the Gospels were not written by saints who had witnessed miracles, but by scribes who had never met Jesus. The government finally admitted that all those soldiers died in Vietnam for no reason and Nixon resigned because of all his lies. I learned to question everything and tore apart what I saw as fake and hollow." He continued as if reading from a list of sins. "I stopped going to church, stopped listening to my parents, stopped caring about what my professors or anyone else at school said. None of them understood."
He explained how he graduated from college "without a plan, not the slightest clue. I went with whatever urge I felt." He told of his job as a janitor, how he got fired and fired again from a job washing dishes, and then fired from a job stacking boxes in a warehouse.
"I had all these feelings that had nothing to do with getting a job or paying taxes or doing anything that might smack of being a citizen." He held his arms out, his palms open, shaking. "I felt such things."
"I read poetry—people they'd never show you in high school—Bob Cording and Gary Snyder, John Berryman and Frank Bidart. They had the sensitivity and the outrage, they had the intelligence to know what I saw and felt. Soon I decided that I must already be a poet; why else would I have those thoughts, that awareness?"
My father rose from his seat and began pacing, his head stooped, the kitchen suddenly seemed too small for him. "I was proud of the fact that I didn't go on a single job interview my senior year. Think about it: I was proud of that. And when I failed at everything I tried, I told myself I wasn't a janitor. I wasn't a bus boy. I wasn't the kid making minimum wage in a warehouse. No, I was a poet." He threw his arms out and looked ready to spit. "I had thoughts others could never think. I had feelings beyond what others could feel." He waved his arm in the air. "I can hear my own stupidity."
He leaned close to me, the small grains of grey in his stubble now visible. "I knew—I knew the truth. I was a fraud, a fake." His eyes showed such self-disgust that I turned away. The refrigerator hummed. A basket of fruit stood at the center of the table, yellow apples and pears going soft.
He walked over to the sink and looked out the window into the backyard. My mother spoke to me in a soft voice. "Bobby, we didn't want you to know, we're so afraid for you, afraid that if you knew, you would take it as a license, not a warning." She looked over at my father and spoke as if he would not hear. "He wound up in the ER at Boston City Hospital, a bar fight, he was beaten up so badly that he couldn't remember what happened. The doctors said he was sick from not eating and drinking too much, that he was exhausted."
I stared at the man gazing out the window. My mother slid her hand over mine and squeezed.
My father came back to the table and sat down. "My parents were the only ones I could call. They didn't know what to do so they locked me in the house. At first, I hated them for it. They laid down rules: when to get up, when to go to bed, what to eat. No more drinking—ever—but that was the easy part. In the morning, my mother took me to 9:30 mass at Sacred Heart. In the afternoon, I worked at the church's thrift shop, doing the lifting the old ladies from the Rosary Society couldn't do. When my father came home from work, we played board games, games like Monopoly and Clue. We ate dinner at 6:30 sharp. My father and I went for a walk every evening and came home for dessert."
"We agreed—my parents and me—that I should go to law school. It filled my days; it gave me structure. I tried to follow, but it wasn't easy. I sat in an auditorium, a professor droning on about contracts and I couldn't make myself care. Right after the start of the second semester, early February, I looked around at my classmates taking notes, leaning on their hands listening, and I knew I couldn't be like them. I spent the whole day sitting in that one chair, unable to move. That night, a janitor found me sitting in the dark and I couldn't begin to tell him why. He called campus security, and, after shrugging their shoulders and laughing a bit, they called my parents."
"I started the routine again. Six more months of morning mass, lunch at the same time, afternoons at the Thrift Shop. I went back to law school in September. I wrote out a schedule, hour-by-hour, accounting for every moment of my day. That's when I met your mother; she sat in front of me in constitutional law." He stood behind her and spoke in a low voice about how she listened, how she helped him stick to his plan, how at night they would go to an 11 o'clock mass in the chapel at BC.
"Don't you see? Don't you see what we're trying to do?" My mother reached to touch my hands. "Do you see why I gave up my practice, to be home?" The silver band of her engagement ring pressed into her skin. "We thought everything was O.K. with Kevin, we thought we could let him go."
"I'm not Kevin. What happened to him won't happen to me."
My mother shook her head; she mumbled something to herself. My father went to speak, but my mother stopped him by touching his wrist. "No, you're not Kevin; we didn't think we'd ever have to worry about him." Her voice faltered. "We've always worried about you, our reckless boy, our heedless boy." My mother sniffled, her head erect, but individual tears rolled down her cheeks. "Long before we lost Kevin, I prayed that nothing would happen to you."
"I'm not Kevin." I hadn't done anything wrong. "I'm not Dad."
My mother rubbed her wedding ring and said, "You don't know. We're only trying to protect you from yourself."
I rolled out a sleeping bag in my new room. I thought of Kevin and how he lived the life they wanted and wound up dead anyway. I thought of my father and his poems. I turned the reading light on and reread his lines. I tried to imagine my father back then, a few years older than me. I pictured him reading his poetry. He steps out of the shadows, no microphone, no podium, just an area in the light, takes a single sheaf of paper out of his pocket, though he never looks at it, and reads his poem in the most clear and unwavering voice.
My father found me in the hall bathroom brushing my teeth. He wore his white flannel pajamas, his toes curling, his toenails yellowing. He waited for me to finish. He put a hand on my shoulder. "Son, about tonight, you need to understand."
"Dad, tell me about the poetry you wrote, tell me about the poem about Grandpa."
He shook his head. "Son, I threw them all away for a reason. I can't even tell you about them now if I wanted to." He leaned against the doorjamb. "You need to let this go." He brushed my hair back. "It's better this way; it really is." He kissed me on the forehead.
I returned to my room and lay out on the floor. I stared until my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. I spoke my father's verse from memory. "My father of geometry/My father of straight lines."
What happened? I wanted the poet to walk through the door, kneel next to me, touch my face and say—say something. I heard only the sound of my own breathing, the hum of the blood in my ears. I thought of the bear and the kid who saw the drowned man, and Kevin. The room felt so large and I'd never felt so alone, so afraid. There were no footsteps and I knew none would come. A light shone under the crack of the door, but I knew it meant nothing, just a light left on.
Copyright © Mark X. Cronin 2005. Title graphic: "Darkened Verse" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.