The Bakery in Winter

At the bakery in winter the old men hold the door
(though it sticks open on the uneven floor)
for their trundling wives.

The wind is urgent and less polite and
elbows past them as if to jump the line,
which would move faster if there were labels
on the offerings of the trade –
the crullers and bear claws and streusels and strudels
(and who really knows which is which?)

How, with the wind and the winter in here
and the line pressing on,
are they to know what to say?
They have to ask
“what’s this and what’s that”
and sometimes when they’re told
it hurts a little to not know already.

They feel threatened to hear names
like Bismarck and Pershing
because those martial monikers ambush the old men
with the cold tactics of ghostly senescence.

Unable to assemble the memories
that they find, wandering
amid the booted chaff of history’s dusky fields,
they swallow unchallenged passwords
and re-feel the crippling fear
of never finding their way back
through the black percussive silence
to the rally point.

But here is a good place, the bakery in winter,
where old wives recount for the girl at the counter
stories of the latest hospital stay.
The husbands hang their leather bombers,
worn, wrinkled, and grave as their skin,
on the backs of chairs.

With the wind so urgent though
and less polite
they put their jackets back on
and think about Bismarck and Pershing
and wonder if it was enough
to have your name live on forever
if only as an unmarked good in a familiar place
that nevertheless stayed too cold in the winter.

Cavity

I.

I’ll say that there are Men.
First.
Just that.
There are Men.

And that men are magnificent.

I’ll say that there are violent men.
Magnificent, violent men.
Violence is the golden blood.
And violence is the fetid brine
where it turns the earth to mud.

And I’ll say that the most violent thing is
Not the man
Not the knife
Not the heart
Not the guts
Not the blood or the brine.

That the most violent thing
is the violence it takes
to strip
to rend
to gnash
to gut
to burn
the man away.

II.

I’ll say that men are with women.
And these women are mothers.
And that mothers are magnificent.

And that if mama don’t get her way
she finds her way
any way.
Because she’s capable of the biggest things –
including violence.
Because that child won’t feed itself.
That fish won’t gut itself.
But mama’s violence doesn’t
crunch and zipper
down the fish’s scales.

Mama’s violence is an ancient intent –
A bloodless lunge that leaves no hole.

III

I’ll say that these women are with men
And these men are fathers
and that fathers are magnificent.

And if papa don’t get his way
he gives his way
any way.
That tree won’t chop itself.

But papa’s violence isn’t neat.
It leaves great gashes of sap
and of tarry black blood
and a hole so big
a child can crawl through it.

IV.

the built world screams at Papa
because his way is violent.

But papa with hard hands in the world he built
says nothing back.
He just shoulders the axe.
Because violence knows
and violence gives way
and violence rests.

And rest endures.

V.

And because endurance is violent
He is violent
to people who are his boys
so that they will not forget how when duty calls them.

And because violence endures
He endures
with people who are his girls
so that they will not forget how when duty calls them.

VI.

And he is with woman and she is with him
and they have ways that are found
and ways that are given
and ways that are taken.
All ways endure.

VII.

The most violent thing
is the fish
because the fish will make you quit
because you feel embarrassed
for the fish if you
look at its guts.

The fish with its rent heart
will not understand this.
The fish with its rent heart
and piles of cold spilled guts
will wonder what’s wrong with you.

The fish will ask:

Have you never eaten?
Has your mother never told you
about all of the pain?
All of the violence it took
to be eaten alive by you?
At least you have the heart to kill me first.

VIII.

And I’ll say that men
have spoken to the fish
about the fish’s guts.

And I’ll say that men
have spoken to the tree
about the tree’s bones.

And I’ll say that men
have spoken to the earth
about the earth’s blood.

And I’ll say that men
have sung to the child
about the child’s supper.

And the fish and the tree and the earth
have answered the men.

the fish has offered its guts.
the tree has offered its bones.
the earth has offered its blood.

IX.

And the little boys drag
– with their bleeding hands
and hard fathers – the heavy axe.

And the little girls pack
– with their tender hands
and hard mothers – the crimson gauze.

the men give thanks
the women water the stone.

Because endurance cradles
violence at its breast
and woos it to its rest.

Shrinking

Like the house you grew up in
and the tree that you climbed.
Like the hill that you’d sled down
and the fossils you’d find.

Like the tadpoles you hunted
Like the snakes that you caught
Like the gun that your friend had
Like the birds that you shot

Like the calls from your parents
in the forts that you built.
Like the food you devoured
in the silence you killed.

Like the fists of your brother
Like the hands of your mom
Like the silence from father
Like he knew all along.

Like the speed of your heart
from your crush on that girl.
Like the dreams in your head
from the size of the world

Like the eyes of the teachers
Like the chalk on the board
Like the bell ending recess
Like the run left unscored

Like the patience of mother
let you know you were wrong.
Like the fear of your father
let you know you belonged.

Like the length of the days.
Like the depth of the night.
Like the hope and the dread.
Like the end was in sight.

Like the way looking back
is like slow-going blind.
Like the way it’s all shrinking
from the falling behind.

Breakfast

“You and mom,” he said.

“Careful now, boy.”

“You and mom,” he said, “are at that age when”

“Eggshells, boy. Have I told you about eggshells?”

“You and mom are at that age when,” here he goes. I can’t believe he’s doing this “at that age when you start shrinking.”

“Get out.”

I used to write these little things down all the time, and am pretty crushed at this point that I’ve spent the last 4 years or so neglecting to record the interactions that I have with the kids. They made some of the best essays I’ve written. My daughter is 10 now, and too neat, so she doesn’t delve into ridiculous things like the 7 year old boy does. And when she did, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it was adorable. The boy, on the other hand, is just a friggin’ mess. To wit:

“I like being in pain. Like an adult. That’s what it all has to go through when you’re an adult. Having pain with your children.”

I don’t know about pain, but it’s telling that he interprets it that way. And his sister asked me today, point blank, “what is it like to be a parent?” How in God’s name do you answer that? They sat behind their cereal bowls, staring at me expectantly, the girl in her pajamas and morning hair, the boy, deathcamp-skinny in nothing but boxer shorts the size of a postage stamp. I don’ know how he survives, I just know that the world doesn’t seem to effect him much, externally. Anything goes.

Anyway, they asked me what it’s like to be a parent (isn’t it obvious? That’s a dad joke), and I don’t think I performed well in the moment. There was some boilerplate stuff about highs and lows, happiness and sadness, good days and bad, but I don’t guess that sounds much different to them than what it’s like to be a kid. I should have had something in there about pressure, about every moment having the terrifying weight of potential life-shaping significance, the immediacy of having someone else’s distant future on your shop table – is this a chopsaw situation, or just a little sand-and-blow? About the fact that I am, indeed coming to that age where I start shrinking, because of that pressure and that weight, but that it’s more willful acquiescence than it is attrition. As a parent you do not lose mass, ever, but you lose a little density, and the universe around you never stops expanding. You shrink just by not keeping up.

But I didn’t say any of that. Not even close. I said the dull usual stuff and said “you’re excused, go get ready for school,” and just kind of went along hoping they didn’t pick up on the fact that often, being a parent isn’t so much about shrinking as it is about failing to be big when the moment calls for it. But then again, that’s why we have kids – to fill up the moments that are too big to inhabit alone.

Like breakfast.

Bone Oil

Lotsa gold left in the land,
Lotsa blue left in the sky.
My face within your tender hands.
Your fingers and my eyes.

Song as soft as baby feet.
The white-faced dog is home.
Oil rises from the street
The color of our bones.

Lotsa green left in the trees,
Lotsa glitter in the stream.
Trace the place behind your knees
Taste your shoulder’s cream.

Song as soft as baby feet.
The white-faced dog is home.
Oil rises from the street
The color’s in our bones.

Lotsa green beneath the snow
Lotsa blue behind the cloud.
My face within your tender hands
For as long as we’re allowed.

Thanksgiving

“That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get.”

 

“It’s good to see you again, Darren.”

“You, too, Mr. Daly. You too.”

“Come on in and just leave your bag here. We’ll get it to your room later.”

Darren let go of the handshake and walked into the house with Mr. Daly, who was silent. The entire house was silent. Things were clean and modern enough, though for some reason Darren had assumed there would be some kind of grandmotherly feel to the place. Doilies on lemony wood, yellowing curtains, linoleum. Crocheted catchphrases on the wall like the motivational posters of another era. It felt like that, but it was not that. The house was current and without nostalgia, modern art on the walls, a leather sofa with the little brass buttons around it. And when Mrs. Daly came down the hall to meet them in living room, the sound was her shoes on dark planks of some kind of exotic hardwood. Things were nice. Warm, but somehow still kind of – he wasn’t sure what to call it – maybe paralytic. Frozen. Warm but frozen. Darren didn’t know what to say. Mr. Daly didn’t know what to say. Mrs Daly said “Happy Thanksgiving, Darren.”

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Daly. Thank you for inviting me.”

“It’s been a long time, Darren, and you’re not a boy anymore. Please, call me Rebecca. And if Stan hasn’t said so yet, you can call him that. We appreciate you making the trip. Be sure to tell your mother that we’re sorry for stealing you this year.”

“I will, Rebecca. Thank you. Your house is beautiful. It’s a long way from the old place in Illinois. I don’t think I see anything here that you had in that house.”
“Probably not,” Stan replied. “Frankly, it was a lot easier to move without dragging a bunch of old stuff along with us. And of course by the time you and Eric joined the Army, well you know we had already lost Joshua, so the idea of just starting fresh really made sense.”

Rebecca agreed and added “We do still have a few of Eric’s old things, and the little flag setup in the hall, but we haven’t kept any kind of a shrine to him or anything like that. And being that he never lived in this house you don’t have to worry that we’re going to make you sleep in his old room.”

Stan said, “On that note, Darren, let me show you where you’re staying.”

Darren was led to a guest room in the finished basement, and when Stan left him to himself, he was surprised to see a small framed picture of the Daly’s youngest son on the dresser. His name was Joshua, and when he was seven the Dalys moved to Illinois because they had been referred to a doctor there who said he could help him. He had a rare childhood cancer, and this doctor was going to give him some kind of a new treatment. Darren was eleven at the time, and so was the Daly’s older son, Eric. They became friends and stayed that way for the next twelve years, when Eric was killed in a firefight in some little beige village in the desert.

Darren put his bag in the corner and shuffled around uncomfortably for a few minutes before going back upstairs. The Dalys were in the kitchen, casually preparing food for tomorrow’s meal. When he entered, Rebecca finished peeling a carrot and said “I hope this isn’t too uncomfortable for you, Eric.”

“No, it isn’t. I mean it is a little, but I don’t think that can be helped.”

“I don’t either,” Stan said. “When you think about it, what with all the noise and hoopla around Eric’s death – his medal, his story, all the visits from Generals and letters from guys he served with – it’s not as though we haven’t made it through the grieving process, you know? Not as though we haven’t been helped and treated well.”

“Right,” Rebecca picked up from there. “We’re good, we’re past it, as much as we can ever be. We’ve been the hero’s parents, and thankfully we were able to get through it without resenting anything too much. Without being too selfish about it, and without being worn down by the attention the way I’ve heard can happen. It’s just that we’ve never talked to anyone, I don’t know, anyone who knew him that we also knew.  Nobody mutual. Everyone had such wonderful things to say about him, and every time I go back and read the citation from his Medal, the things he did –  I mean, it’s all so incredible. So…nice, you know? But all of those people – every one of them was a stranger to us.”

“Well I hope,” Darren was a little lost, “I hope I can, I don’t know – well, look: As you know, I wasn’t there when he died. I mean, I wasn’t even in Afghanistan at the time.  I didn’t even hear about it until 3 months after it happened. I didn’t even know. I wasn’t there when it happened. I wasn’t with him. I couldn’t have done anything.”

When they were all younger and Joshua seemed to be having a new surgery every week, and his chemo treatments left him weakened and slow, the boys were occasionally tasked with playing with him, taking him with them when they went out. But he was slow and clumsy. He had a hole in his chest, a ‘port’ his parents called it, with a little nozzle like a car tire or a life raft so that he could just show up at the hospital and have a hose plugged into him without a bunch of hassle. Everything else was difficult for him and his enfeebled system, and Eric was mean to him because of it. Darren remembered wishing that they didn’t have to take Joshua with them. It made Eric embarrassingly cruel. Eric gave Joshua gifts and cards and always acted eager to visit him in the hospital. But when they were away from their parents, he called Joshua a retard and tried to show Darren how easy it was to make him fall over. It was the only time Darren didn’t like being around Eric.

On Thanksgiving day Darren came up from his room in the Daly’s basement. A small table in the hall held a picture of Eric, Private First Class Daly at the time, in his uniform, maroon beret pulled down over one ear and maybe just the tiniest suggestion of a smile on an otherwise serious face. On the wall above it was a display of several medals, a Bronze Star along with a handful of lesser ones that Darren had, too, but couldn’t remember the names of. In the center was a plaque bearing the citation for his Medal of Honor, and a triangular case displaying a folded American Flag.

Stan approached and they stood together quietly for a few moments. “They named a street after him back in our old town, before we left. ‘Eric Daly Drive.’ There was a parade, and it seemed like the phone calls and mail would never stop coming. It was exhausting.”

“I heard about the street. I wanted to be there for that, but I was still – I haven’t been able to get back there. Is that why you moved?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m no psychologist, but I suppose it was part of it. I know we never looked at each other and said we have to get out of here. But between that road and all the attention, and Joshua’s grave, I think moving away was pretty inevitable for us.”

“Don’t you –I’m sorry, I really don’t know – don’t you want to stay closer to those things? Will you ever move back?”

“Oh God, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Those things -”

“Yeah, sorry, that was a bad way to say it.”
“No, that’s ok. That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get. And even if we moved right back into our old house, our boys would still belong to that town more than they did to us.” They stared at the wall. Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed. From the kitchen came the smell of heat and thyme. “I almost wish we didn’t have that picture there,” Stan told him. “I know it’s old and he was a Staff Sergeant by the time he was killed. We have plenty of other pictures of him, but for some reason we put up that picture there, and now it’s the only way I can ever see him when I close my eyes and try to remember. None of the earlier times, none of the Illinois days, none of the times with Joshua. Just that posed picture there.”

“It’s a good picture, Mr. Daly.  A nice picture. A nice way to remember him.”

 

One winter back in Illinois, when they were fourteen and Joshua ten, the three of them were walking in the field behind their houses. Joshua wobbled along behind them, awkward but with an odd joy he seemed to have gained through his illness. Eric said that one of his brain surgeries ruined him in some way. Made him too stupid to be sad. They made their way towards the pond where the water froze over to a dependable thickness by December every year, and some of the neighborhood boys even played hockey on it sometimes. It was January, and by then they didn’t think twice about walking right across it. To their knowledge, nobody had ever fallen in. Darren and Eric had reached the other side. Joshua was still about 20 feet out. Eric had been cursing him all day. He scolded Joshua to get across, and started lobbing rocks towards him. Joshua looked frightened and shouted at him in a breathless little voice to stop, but there was hardly any noise, just the steam on the air. Eric kept throwing rocks, tossing them higher and higher, and using bigger and bigger rocks. Joshua was doing his best to hurry across, but his coordination had been excised by a half dozen operations, and tumbled around in too many dialysis machines, so he was stuck in what might have been, at another time, a comical flailing of scrawny limbs. Eric taunted him, shouting “COME ON, BAMBI!”

At last Eric got hold of a rock the size of his head, and with two hands and a violent grunt, sent it towards his brother. When it landed it lodged about half of itself in the ice. All three of them stopped moving and stared at it mutely for a few seconds as it paused in that hard blue layer halfway between the water and the sky. Suddenly it vanished with a meek little splash. Joshua looked up at the boys on the bank. His pale face, skeletal and wasted from the medical war that had been waged on his body, registered an oddly mature look of acceptance just before disappearing beneath the ice. Darren shouted his name and started in his direction, but Eric held him back.

“We can still help him!”

“No. We can’t.”

The two of them watched from a distance until water stopped splashing out of the hole that Joshua had made.

At the table, on Thanksgiving, over a small turkey and some wine, Rebecca made a suggestion: “I know nobody likes doing this, but why don’t the three of us take a minute to say what we’re thankful for.”