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Every Place is a Face,
by Ed Fairburn

There were six of us,
a number now decreased to four,
of which I’m still the oldest.
And while some may think
holding that position
has hereditary privileges, it also
has its responsibilities and duties.
Or at least it did for me.
If you take the role seriously,
you’re the one who will mind
the second or third littlest —
change them, feed them, keep
the roar down to a rumble —
since Mom will be elbow deep
into the youngest’s care.
At seventeen, I ran away
to a college out west (well,
Rochester), giddy with the thought
that finally I’d be alone to fend
for myself and invent the guy
I might really be, or wanted to be.
All I was sure of was he looked
just like me. And that was the problem.
No matter how hard you try,
eventually you’ll look at that guy
in the mirror and see a nose like Dad’s
and your sisters’s, eyes brown as Mom’s
and your brother’s. A map of the place
only your family lives. And you
might as well admit it, that face,
no matter who resides behind it,
always leads you back to your family.
And that’s where you’ll always belong.

For Day #8 of April, 2018’s PAD Challenge, we were to write a family poem. That one cuts deep for me in so many places and so many ways. And I mean cuts. You can see the roads and rivers and other signs of man and God as they trod from my expanding forehead to my sagging chin. Or at least I see where we’ve been. ‘Nuff said.

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Cradles

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They each hold their positions
of conscious unconsciousness.
One on her side, her back, her side,
gently rolling in a sea of slumber
only a child floats upon.
The other, in his soft chair,
head back, closed eyelids a’twitch,
whispering the tender tune
of the chain saw’s lullaby.
The house is quiet, save for
the call and response of
the gentle snores of toddler,
grandparent and furnace,
all keeping harmony with
the breathing of nearby homes,
each suspended from the dreamy
winter afternoon sky by tendrils
of exhalation from their chimneys
swaying in the breeze
like a nursery of cradles.

Any similarities between this scene and mine and my granddaughter’s afternoon here in cold and sleepy upstate New York are completely coincidental. Yeah…sure.

Unlock the Doors and Throw Away the Keys

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“How long’s he been in there?”

“Really? I’m not sure anymore. Could be a couple of hours. Could just as easily be a couple of months.”

“He just sits in there? Doesn’t talk to anyone?”

“That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. I’ve been in there a few times today, but he just looks at you––or maybe through you––and grunts an ‘uh-huh’ or ‘nah-thanks’. And then goes back to reading or staring or maybe just staring at what he’s reading.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“I thought maybe you could go in there and try to bring him out. If not out of his room, then out of whatever shell or hole his hiding in. He’s always respected you, Ben. You’re always been Andy’s favorite coach, a mentor, a friend. I’m sure he’ll listen to you.”

“I don’t know. He’s been a little withdrawn for a bit. Still the hardest worker. Great pride and caring for his teammates. But he has been quieter and it’s really been noticeable since…you know.”

“But at least it’s worth a try. Please, see if you can get him to come out.”

“Okay, I’ll go in there and talk. But I can’t make any promises. We haven’t spoken with one another since the service.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Andy? It’s Coach Ben. May I come in?”

A pause.

“Andy?”

“Yeah, if you want to.”

“Hey. How you doing? I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by to say…”

“Could you close that door, please?”

“What? Oh, sure, sure. I’ll just leave it open a crack, okay?”

“Whatever.”

“So how you been? Your Mom says you’ve been kinda down in the dumps, though I can completely understand. What with..”

“Yeah, well, it is what it is. I’m okay. Just want to be alone for a while.”

“She says you haven’t left your room for a few days. Barely even eaten. That’s not good, man.”

“Not hungry. And I said I’m all right. Really. You don’t have to make nice and try making me feel ‘better.’ Okay?”

“Well, you don’t look okay. Jesus, can you at least open the blinds in here? It’s dark as the…oh, sorry.”

“The grave? Yeah, how ‘bout that?”

“I’m sorry, man. I should be more sensitive, think about what I’m saying. It’s just I didn’t expect to see you so…I don’t know.”

“Depressed?”

“Yeah, I guess I’d call it that. But, with your Dad and all, I can understand.”

“No, I don’t think so. But that’s okay. Look, you don’t have to stay. I’m all right. Just thinking. Trying to make sense. Figuring things out.”

“Like what?”

“Nothing, nothing really. Just…things.”

“C’mon, Andy, it’s me. Maybe if you just talked a little.”

“Okay, okay. I’m thinking about how I killed my father. You satisfied now? Now go away. Please.”

“What’re you talking about? You didn’t kill your dad. He, well, you know. For some reason he just wanted out. It’s a tragedy, man, but you can’t blame yourself for someone else’s decisions.”

“Oh, no? You didn’t know my dad, then. When I finally got the courage to tell Sergeant Clean Marine, Lieutenant Super-cop, he just stared at me with this look of…I don’t know what. Like I was some kind of repulsive criminal, a pedo or something.”

“That’s ridiculous. Your old man was proud of you. Super athlete, straight-A student, one of the most popular kids in your class, great son, true friend.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying. It’s all true.”

“Not you. Me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I’m the liar. My whole life’s a lie and that’s what made my dad kill himself.”

“You’re freaking me out, Andy. What do you mean, your whole life’s a lie?”

“C’mon, man. You know. You of all people know.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I finally told him about who, what I am. And that I was in love.”

“Yeah,so…”

“With you.”

“What? I never… You never.. You came out to your dad?”

“Yeah. And now you.”

“Okay, one big fucking deal at a time. And you think that’s why?”

“Not a two weeks after, man. He didn’t speak to me but a handful of words from the day I told him. I’d look up and find him looking at me and then quick-like tear his eyes away, like I was malformed, a freak.”

“Man, I’m sorry. Did you tell your Mom?”

“No, I wanted to get the hard part over first, then I’d worry about Mom. That was my big mistake. Besides even telling him at all.”

“I can’t believe your father would take that news like that. He always seemed so open, so loosey-goosey about people, especially for a cop. It’s what made him such a great cop.”

“Well, then you’d be wrong, Coach. I told him, I broke his heart, he killed himself. It’s all on me. And now I’m been thinking I might…”

“Cut it out, man. Stop this crazy talk. You’re not going to. You’ve got too much to live for. Your old man made his own decision. He didn’t have to do what he did. He could just as easily blown up, punch you in the mouth, thrown you out, whatever. It was his decision. This was all on him.”

“Nah. He’d rather be dead than have a gay son. Of that I’m sure.”

“Andy, stop! You stop that right now.”

“Mom? Were you listening? Jesus Christ, this is great. Why don’t we invite the whole town in here? I’m sorry, Mom. It was me. It IS me…”

“Honey, your father didn’t kill himself over you. He loved you. You were his shining light, the greatest decoration he had. He was more proud of you, valued you a thousand times more than his Silver Star, all the medals of valor combined, more than even me.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. It’s all my fault. I drove him to it. Did you see his face? Did you?”

“Andy, that was pain, fear. He didn’t have the courage to tell you.”

“What? That I was an embarrassment to the marble man? The most perfect man ever?”

“Stop it.”

Ben back toward the bedroom door.

“The world would be better off if I was the one who killed himself. Then you’d still have Dad.”

“No, I wouldn’t. He was dying.”

“What?”

“Dying, Andy. Your father had an inoperable tumor. Remember those headaches?”
“No. I never… I mean, he never said…”

“He said he’d tell you when the time was right. But he decided to end it before it got started. He left it to me to tell you. You know cops. They just…”

“Don’t cry, Mom. I’m sorry. But when I told him..”

“Andy, we’d pretty much figured out something like that was going on with you a while ago. It was hard for your father, but he’d come around for the most part. He was even going to tell you we knew, wouldn’t let me. Said it was a man-to-man thing. I was so stupid. It’s just that men in his family never open up, don’t talk about what’s really on their minds. Macho bullshit. And you’re a true Miller, just like your father, your grandfather, your uncle Bobby. He’s gay, you know.”

“ Uncle Bobby, the freakin’ All-American? I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of this. Why..?”

“Because everyone kept their doors closed. All the time. That’s the real tragedy of your father’s passing.”

“I’ll see myself out, Mrs. Miller. Looks like you two have got some stuff you want to talk about. You want me to leave this door open?”

“Yes, Ben. And thank you for kicking this one open in the first place. Looks like we’re going to air things out in here, in this family, for the first time in a while. Maybe ever.”

“Aw, I didn’t do anything. I think you two just needed someone to help open that door you talked about. Hey, Andy, when you’re ready to get back to practice, just let me know. We can talk about all this. It’s all cool, okay? You’ve still got the most guts of any player I’ve… well you do. See you soon, okay?”

As Ben Tolliver stepped outside the Miller’s house, he gave a great sigh and tightly shut his right eye and gave it a rub with his finger. He pulled out his phone and clicked on a number he called often, but for nothing as big as this time.

“Hi, Dad? You got a few minutes this afternoon? There’s something I’ve got to tell you that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

“Yeah, see you in an hour. What? No, don’t want to talk about it on the phone. I’ll explain when I get there. Yeah. Yeah, keep the door open for me.”

Here’s the first draft of a story based upon the photo above and somewhat on this quote:

Happiness often sneaks in
through a door you didn’t
know you left open…
– John Barrymore

For whatever reason, I just started writing it as all dialogue. It’s my hope that the voices are distinct enough and the language helps express emotion. It’s kind of an ultimate experiment and exercise in  “Show-don’t-tell.” My friend Annie Fuller laid the photo and quote on me .

Creating the First Creation

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This weekend I finally started getting rid of some of my late Mom’s stuff. I found a few things in what my mom kept of my past. My LOOOOOONG ago past. It appears I did not write my first poem in 2008 or so. My first swing at creating what might be verse was in 2nd or 3rd Grade.

And, true to your present-day poet guy, this piece plays with rhyme the way a cat does a mouse, batting it around before knocking it off altogether. Plus has an abrupt, though so-Joe Hesch ending

Apparently I had to write about Creation:

First light was made.
Second sky and sea.
Third dry land and plant life all.
Fourth sun and moon and stars of light.
Fifth fishes and birds oh so bright.
Sixth beasts of earth and creeping things.
Seventh ….

I guess both creators rested on #7

Sundays at the Table

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As day pulls back its rooftop bedclothes,
it awakens the maples out my window.
Their gray skins become silver
as knives and forks upon a spring green
damask tablecloth, as if set for Sunday dinner.
I’d trudge to such weekly repasts,
poked around overcooked roast and
wallpaper paste gravy, feasted only my eyes
on the sheen of the slices of briny corned beef,
passed along the bowl of gray flannel cabbage.
Each member of the little family group sat
in his or her prescribed chair around the table.
For decades, never would there be a change
in those arrangements, until eventually the family
dwindled, piece by sloppy piece, like
the dessert pie in its glass baking dish.
The sun’s up for it’s dewy breakfast now
and I have to take my current creaking trudge
to breakfast for two. Instead of eggs and
toast, though, this morning I think I want pie.

I Didn’t Have To Look

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I didn’t have to look.
When Father’s Day came around,
as all those Junes ago did,
I think I recall the Old Man
doing what he mostly always did
on any other Sunday morning.
I knew he’d be there in the kitchen,
the invisible trail of perking coffee
preceding the cloudy footprint
of his first-of-the-day Camel.
And, above it all, the blessed aroma
of smoke, sizzle and salt, the price
some porcine martyr paid for the sins
against the good health gods we’d
soon share. It was Heaven.

Years later, I might sit and talk
with the Old Man, but almost never
look him in the eyes, those
once-scary glowing sapphires I wish
I’d inherited from him instead of
this III at the end of my name.
I never got the chance to wish him
a proper goodbye before he was taken from us,
of course, while he was making morning coffee.
I think maybe that’s a good thing.
I’d never want to trade my final
olfactory image of him I hang in my memory —
of cigarettes, motor oil and cans of Genny —
for some hospital room’s antiseptic memory
of my Old Man. For that, I’m glad…
I didn’t have to look.

A Father’s Day theme to my the latest exercise in my little arc expressing the what one might glean from one sense by using a different one. In this case I used Smell to express Sight. And what I wouldn’t give to get a good whiff of the Old Man one more time. And, yeah, that towhead in the snappy two-tone Thom McAn’s and snap-on bow tie is the same scribbling guy whose hair would turn black as Dad’s and then silver as Mom’s.

Family History

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Joey, age one and a half…maybe.

I sometimes sit and wonder about my grandparents, even the grandfather I never met. It’s said that I was my paternal grandfather’s favorite, but I wasn’t the one who said it. But he let me hang around him and do silly little jobs for him. My brothers and cousins didn’t get that treatment. Or those nickels.

I knew my grandmothers, who I can’t recall smiling too much. But that’s how my memory works. Mom’s mom died of cancer in the nursing home, where the only time she cried was that one time I visited. Or so Mom said. Dad’s mom died a few years before she actually went to Jesus. A stroke took that stern old lady and turned her into a limping, one-armed child whose little vocabulary mainly consisted of, and was punctuated by, “Oh-gosh-sakes” and “Oh-dammit.”

Mom’s dad died very young, barely 40, I think. I’ve seen photos of him, though. A dapper guy with round tortoise-shell framed glasses and white snap-brim hat right off a 1930s movie screen. But I know more about his dad and mom than I do him. Memory and history are strange that way.

And that’s about all I can remember about them without straining something. I’ve a deep well of a memory, but when I dip my bucket in its darkness to pull up something of them, the rope’s usually too short. I’m sure they’d have lots they could tell me now, especially since I’ve become a sweet someone’s grandfather.

Sometimes I think it’d be better that we don’t know the whole tales—beginning to end—of those old folks. Just let them remain the semi-smiling, squinting, faded faces in the family albums, the aromas that will surprise me and shake a memory that has no story, no context, the stories a cousin will tell me that I can only nod to and say, “Uh, yeah, sure do!”.

There are parts of my life I wouldn’t want my granddaughter to know. You know, about all my failures. About the mountains of mistakes I’ve built, climbed, fallen from and built some more. About all the disappointments in my own mind. About the guy who spent so much of his life in lonely battle inside his own head or dueling with himself over a keyboard and lost almost every time. I want her to remember the warm and happy grandpa and all his funny stories. Even if so many aren’t “true.” But she won’t care anyway.  That’s what even I could call a victory.

I mean history is written by us winners, right?