Rock and Water
They were a perfect pair.
The boy hunched over near the rocks.
His shadow moving gently on the surface
as if he were stirring the water.
When you looked closer, you could see
that he had something in his hand.
A small silver fish.
He was stroking it. Placing it in the water
in swimming position.
It floated to the surface and lay on its side.
The sun shone on the side of the fish
and the boy continued.
Nearby another boy stood with a fishing pole
facing the other way.
He was busy and only looked over once in a while.
The boy continued trying to help the fish
by adjusting it in the water, placing it in motion.
Patiently and deliberately, as if placing the last piece
in a puzzle. As if it only needed a little help, a touch.
Once in a while the fish would actually stir on its own
and then it would slip to the surface as if having died again.
Each time the boy seemed more intent
and repeated his stroking, hovering like a guardian
repeating this ritual of patient affection and concern.
It was a very clear day. The water and the light glittered.
I stayed until I couldn’t watch any longer.
Hovering as if to understand.
They were a perfect pair.
The little fish did not know how to go on living.
And the boy did not know how to let it go.
I Called My Uncle
I called my uncle. I had something to tell him.
Out of the clear blue, he sent me five hundred dollars.
He was giving gifts to his nieces and nephews.
I was living in Binghamton, working as a substitute teacher
and living in a crappy apartment.
I didn’t know if I would have work from day to day.
I didn’t know why he was giving me a gift, but when I saw the check,
I was grateful.
My uncle was old school. When he died, a friend referred to him
as “a diamond in the rough.”
I thought about what I knew of him. He had been in World War II.
There were some stories. Hard times.
At his funeral, his brother– my dad– told a long rambling story
about how my uncle took my father to a baseball game
when my dad was young. My father stood by the grave
and recounted. He remembered that on that day the famous player,
Joe Dimaggio, hit two home runs.
It seemed like a funny story to tell at a funeral. And even more odd
was how my dad referred to the baseball player as, “Joe D.”
Looking at the hole in the ground, he said,
“…. and Joe D hit two homers.”
He hesitated, as if trying to find a few more words. Nothing.
Then eventually he said, “I liked him,” and took a small step back.
I wasn’t sure whom my dad was referring to: the baseball player
or my uncle? And then I realized it must be my uncle– his brother.
He was talking about his brother.
It was a year earlier that I called to thank him.
I felt my uncle had looked down from somewhere and saw
where the dark was collecting in the corners and wanted
to do something for me.
When I called, I told him I wanted to thank him.
He didn’t say anything.
I said it was a surprise. I listened, waiting for a response,
wondering if there were something else I could say.
That’s the hard part: knowing what to say.
I imagined my father’s brother in his Bronx apartment,
the way he was the last time I saw him. How he came to the door
in his underclothes and then rested in bed while we talked.
I hadn’t seen him like that before.
It was the beginning of his physical decline.
Before that, he was all strength and good humor.
Now, on the phone, it was as if we were both standing in the dark.
The undivided dark that we all share, but must abide alone.
Maybe it was that that made me really feel the simplicity of his gift,
and I told him I didn’t think I deserved it. It was then
that the silence on the other end of the line seemed more intense.
I heard a sound like someone trying to breathe.
And then I realized, he was crying. Quietly sobbing.
Years later, after I gave a poetry reading, a friend of my father’s
came up to me and shook my hand, and then he surprised me.
Holding my hand a moment longer, he said, You’re not nothing.
We were standing in the doorway. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
I still remember that. I didn’t know, but I sensed it was meaningful .
After some time, it came to me, and I knew what to say.
Thank you, Uncle George, I said. I love you.
And before I hung up, and then for some time after, it seemed
my uncle and I were dwelling together in a timeless place.
A different place. Not this one.
Crepuscular Non Driveway
I try not to antagonize. I try to get along.
First with my wife—I mean, I wasn’t born yesterday.
And with my son. He’s here with some friends
and we’re having a barbecue. Snacks and drinks.
He has drums set up in the garage. There are electric guitars
and amps. One of his friends is a singer.
She’s wearing a floral print dress. Her name is Cammy.
They’re getting ready to play, and I have the feeling
that it’s finally happening. The dullness of winter is gone
and Spring is coming true. Just like it said it would.
It’s sublime, and everyone seems to be feeling it.
I go in to refresh my drink.
I usually don’t think about “refreshing my drink”
but here I am. Just then my neighbor from across the street–
an old-school-codger — is coming down the drive.
When we moved into the neighborhood, he crossed the street
introduced himself and asked, “Are you mechanically inclined?”
I’m pretty handy, I thought to myself. “I fix things,” he said.
“If you ever need something fixed, let me know.”
I pictured a table full of toasters, blenders, old radios.
“Thanks,” I said. That was several years ago.
Now he’s headed straight for the garage, where Cammy
is holding a microphone. Seeing her standing there
reminds me of a television show my wife and I watched
this past winter. Singers compete and the winner gets to record.
It’s one of our main sources of togetherness. Every once in a while
one of us will say, “That’s something.”
And the other will say, “Yeah, but not as good as so and so…”
And a good feeling will hover over as we watch.
We also have a new kitten. When we’re not watching the TV
we’re watching the kitten fly around the room, bopping off the walls
onto the tops of tables and chairs.
If we had a chandelier, the kitten would be up there.
That show and the kitten got us through winter.
Now it’s spring and here comes the neighbor.
Dour, like he has been carrying a load on his back so long
it’s become part of his back.
As I walk over to meet him, I realize it would’ve been nice
to invite him to the party. And just then an electric guitar starts up.
Very loud. You’d think Jimi Hendrix was alive and well
and just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Cammy hasn’t started singing, and I’m wondering,
How are we going to hear her? The neighbor is saying something
I can barely make out, shaking his head like an umpire
standing in the dust around home plate, saying, No, no, no.
And when I finally hear his words they are, “No, no, no.”
And he adds, “It’s not going to work.”
In one hand I have my refreshment.
With the other, I wave to the guys to hold off for a second.
I’m not the boss of spring time and parties, but it is my place
and my hand hangs in the air, like the wannabe master of all I survey.
“Not going to work,” he says again. I assume he means the volume.
“I can’t have it,” he says, “I have to work tomorrow.”
It’s about 8 p.m.
Up until now, the day has been sipping from a long cool drink.
Now the air is starting to darken, the last of the light pouring off.
I’m trying to remember the name for that light, that time of day.
“Crepuscular.” But I can’t think of it now, and at the same time
I’m feeling a little stumped. In the ten years that we’ve lived here
we’ve never had a party and the one time we do– there’s a complaint.
The noise has stopped, and my son and his friends have come over
to see what’s going on. I want to respond with something neighborly.
After all, what we’re doing on this first day of Spring is good
but underneath it, I can’t believe Mr. Fixit is saying I can’t have a party.
I want to be diplomatic, but the words lining up in my head
bump into one another as they get to the tip of my tongue
and all that comes out is, “Come on.”
I’m a little immature, and later I’ll imagine that I have a wand
and cast a spell: Crepuscular Non Driveway.
I point and there’s a puff, and when the dust settles everything is calm
and Mr. No No No has returned to his side of the street.
But for now, all I have is, “Come on.”
“No music,” he says. That’s all he has.
In the meantime, my son, who has come over and is standing next to me,
seems to be growing larger and larger, like a genie
that has been in stuffed in a bottle for a long time and is suddenly out.
His arms are big and folded across his chest, and he’s gazing down
at the little man from across the street.
He looks at me to see if I’m done talking, and then says
to the neighbor in a kind of pseudo-tender voice,
“You don’t like the blues?”
I think it’s funny, but I also know that it’s important to be respectful
and I don’t want to give The Genie the message
that that’s how you talk to your neighbors.
It’s a critical moment in my parenting
and I feel I need to set an example of courtesy–
even when one doesn’t feel it.
The neighbor stands there for a moment, waiting for someone
to say something else, and then he turns and starts back to his house.
I ask my son to turn off the amps, which they’ve already done.
The girl has put down the microphone, and the musicians
are standing around chatting and smoking cigarettes.
I look inside our house. My wife is in the kitchen.
For a second I think I see her moving flowers from the counter
and putting them in the sink, but then I realize
there are no flowers yet. She’s just putting away a few dishes.
It’s dark now. Across the street, through the neighbor’s window,
I can see the pale light flashes from a television
that floods what otherwise looks like an empty room.
And for a moment I think I’m seeing the light of our era.
Flickers on empty walls and inner cells.
And for some reason, I think of creation
how there must’ve been a lot of light flashing: explosions of light.
And for a moment I feel for him.
It’s a little sad at the beginning of time.
And the sound is deafening.
At the poetry reading, I stood at the podium
looking out over the crowd. I probably shouldn’t say crowd.
There might’ve been twenty people in between the shelves
in the back of an old bookstore in Buffalo.
They were good to come out on a cold, wet, end of winter day.
They were my audience, and I wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for them.
Sure I had a book, but still, if no one wants to get off the couch
after dinner, there’s no reading or reader.
So I have to give them that, though I still felt like I was the one standing
and they were sitting, and it felt like I was peering out at them.
Sort of how the water at the top of the falls looks out over the edge
and contemplates that long going over. It was like that.
I was the poet at the top of the falls.
In fact that afternoon, I had gone to Niagara Falls.
I went to the Canadian side, as you’re supposed to, to get the good view
and I looked it over. Have you ever been there? It’s dramatic.
You can’t really figure it out. All that water, all that roaring.
That might be the main part. The roaring. And the mist.
And because it was the end of winter, there was still snow.
With all the falling water, the mist comes up and the snow
comes down and builds up for what looks like ten stories high
and a couple of city blocks wide.
And all the while the falls continues roaring its head off.
And that’s how I looked out at the crowd. And I told them so.
“You know those falls?” I said peering down.
“That ain’t nothing. I know people who can do that.”
They just sat there looking at me like piles of snow.
Buffalo. What a great place to give a reading.
Even if they don’t know what you’re talking about, they do.
Before Skinner and increments of reinforcement,
there was Pez. Pellets of species specific candy.
A product of the industrial revolution that put things in packages,
brought meaning to cardboard and cellophane.
Now you could get a “pack” of something.
And the stuff in the pack looked better than their ancestors,
those lumpy cigarettes you rolled by hand, or the cakes
grandma made with rumpled crusts and hunks of fruit.
I remember how an open pack of cigarettes looked like ammunition.
A line of bullets. Perfectly straight teeth.
Come to think of it, that was probably when they started
clamping down—all of a sudden everyone was wearing braces,
and smiling their big industrial smiles.
It was all part of the process.
Pez came in a dispenser. That was key.
You didn’t just eat this stuff like feed from someone’s hand,
but with a flick of your thumb you forged a perfect tab,
a compact block of powdered sugar emerged as if from an assembly line.
Manufactured from the force of your hand, it was not unlike
how Superman turned a lump of coal into a diamond.
It was the nearest thing to witnessing birth.
The cool thing was you could take it everywhere and be ready for anything.
One time, after reading an essay by the young Prince Charles
about what he would take with him in the event that during a war
he was deserted on an island, my teacher asked us to write a similar essay.
She didn’t tell us what the smart and practical prince put down,
and I don’t remember all of what I wrote.
But I remember, I got the answers wrong.
My list, which included my bicycle and the dispenser, didn’t compare.
I pictured myself on my bike, zipping from foxhole
to foxhole. With my ready dispenser, I slid between salvo
and salvo, and moment to moment.
Clearly, I was delirious.
And I think that image really bothered her.
For what could you teach someone who had
a gadget of self-reliance– a personal dispenser of candy bullion.
But I had something that she couldn’t give me and could barely control.
It’s called enthusiasm.
And when I put it to good use, like not beating up my brother
or burning down the house, my parents gave me Pez.