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Jan Heller Levi
Untitled (for the moment)
If we hate our parents, who made us, isn't that
a way of hating ourselves? My father, for ex-
ample. I made a career of cataloging
his injustices, and yes, they were legion. Here's
a recap: the tongue depressors, the rigid heart,
oreo cookies slashed in two, their cellophane
wrappers trembling. The tampax string.
The litter incident. The mission. The misdiagnosis.
Mostly, the misapprehension of my twisting,
like a plant, toward the sun. He saw only the twisting.
How he scorned my larval, alchemical spirit. Oh yes,
the days are wonderfully similar, dull and
horrible in that suburban steambox called my
childhood, he the pillar, the post, the key-jangler,
the money-bags, the bookie, the Politburo,
the President, the Archduke Ferdinand, the King,
the King of Kings, I the wee thing, the holy roller,
the short-division problem, the toothless and the over-
toothed, the carwash drinker, the vomiting medusa,
the screamer, the drop in the bucket, the poet.
This has all been chronicled. Now my pop is 80,
a lambie-kins, a — pfuft-pfuft — flat tire. Across
banquet rooms at family affairs, I watch him
nod and bob at cousins, nieces and nephews,
taking in maybe half, giving out less. We all agree
that he's adorable, his second wife started out
a problem, but hey, she's got a full plate now,
and hasn't she been great, really--keeping him
fed and clothed, adjusting his meds, even, now
and then, getting him out to a museum. But
what I want to say is oh scourge of my youth,
where have you gone? Now that I am strong,
strong enough for an equal match, you've gone
and disappeared into this doddering, sweet,
infuriating shade that I'd be a bully to pick on.
You sneaky bastard, all bent over like that.
Come on, I know you're in there. Come out
and fight like a man. We were something
back then, remember, all thunder, lightning,
and fireworks. Come on out, you fist in a glove,
be who you've always been: my tall, my strong,
my awful, my greatest enemy, my love.
Reed was one of the first to go.
Before it had a name, his bones started turning to paper.
It's not true it didn't have a name.
The doctors gave it a dozen.
then rheumatoid arthritis.
Followed by combinations
of the above
to which were added
some kind of blood thing,
Maybe a tumor
or collection of tumors.
They kept testing. We kept waiting.
They kept naming. We repeated the names
like children in a spelling bee,
sounding out the letters in our mouths
like a mantra.
Then he was up again,
same old Reed,
heading to the clubs,
bringing us languid, humid stories from the baths,
showing up at Ken's and my wedding party, the coolest guest of all,
gentlest guy in the world
head-to-toe in leather
with a pack of pick-ups trailing behind,
gentlest kids in the world,
also head-to-toe in leather.
Good dancers, too.
I remember they stayed after everyone else was gone,
helped us clean up,
scraping lasagna from paper plates,
downing the last of the wine in pale blue plastic glasses.
When they left,
they tossed our garbage bags over their shoulders
and clomped down the stairs,
Santa Clauses in reverse.
Two weeks later the phone tree
told us the flu,
two weeks later, worse.
Two weeks later
back in the hospital,
howling because the weight of the sheets on his skin was unbearable.
He wasn't in leather,
but his favorite plaid workshirt
If the boys from our party were there,
I didn't recognize them.
Or maybe they'd already left.
We got there late,
after the service,
stayed a few minutes,
went out for coffee,
Since then, the friends who connected us
to Reed have drifted
out of our lives —
there's no name for how that happens, either -
and now the marriage is over, too.
Still, when I think of Reed,
I taste the last crumbs
of wedding cake on our lips
when we kissed goodbye that night,
how sweet it was,
how goddamn, goddamn sweet.