Our positions at the dinner table:
East to west, my mother and me;
North to south my brother and dad.
We waited for the south wind
To blow in, spaghetti and meat balls
Getting cold. When we heard
The car pull up the driveway,
My mother lifted pot lids.
The old bull of the woods
Had made it home, lurched in
The back door and stumbled
Laughing into his chair, shrugged
His shoulders and dumbly grinned at
Each of us. I dished up and passed
Him the bowl of noodles. He stared
At it, “Shit on a shingle?” he asked.
“You don’t have to eat it,” Mother said.
He laughed and blinked, pointed
At the north pole, “You like shit
On a shingle?” My older brother
Focused on his plate. “Tastes good to me,”
I chimed in. “I wasn’t talkin’ to you,”
He said and turned back to my brother
Who never looked up or uttered a word.
So the old bull slammed the table
With his fist, and all the plates jumped.
My brother’s icy glance met the Old
Man’s cold stare. A glint of steel flashed,
Blades hacked and slashed in my gut—tight
As their mirrored jaw muscles flexing.
Mother spit out, “If you don’t like it,
Go back uptown!” BAM! The fist came down,
And utensils hit the floor. “Goddamn you!”
She said, reaching for his plate
As he grabbed at her wrists. “Stop it!”
I yelled, a spaghetti matador, red sauce
On my lips. My arching voice unfurled as I
Clenched my fork, challenged the blind
Rage of whiskey in a bitter-rotten corpse
Still afoot but dead as Christ in the tomb
Of his head. “Button your lip!” the bull
Said, nostrils flared, ready to kill. I wallowed
Spaghetti dry in my mouth. The tears
Plopped on my food before I knew
I was leaking. I dropped my fork and ran
To the bathroom stifling the bawl in my throat.
I hated him for losing again—the failed matador
Who couldn’t win or kill the bull—didn’t know
How, nor want to play. If I’d had a sword,
I couldn’t have used it. I sat on the toilet
Seat and sobbed for my mother, my brother,
And me caught in a bottle and slaughtered
Once again by a stupid, drunken bully.
Then I heard the door handle turn—saw it
Was too late to lock the key. He squeezed inside,
Tried to speak . . . nothing came out but air.
His red eyes were beaten, glassy as mine
As he got down on his knees, put his hand
On my head, and held onto what he couldn’t say,
Choking on booze, love, failure, regret. I wiped
My eyes and asked him, “Why?” He shrugged
And shook his bobbing head, weaved. His nose
Dripped and chest heaved, tears streaked
His whiskered cheeks, but he didn’t make a sound.
He caressed my neck, pursed his lips, nodded
And rubbed my back, managed to say more without
Words than I’d ever heard before. I told him
“It’s okay,” and I meant it. I left him there,
Knew the whiskey was about to take him down,
And returned to finish my dinner. My brother
Had already retreated to his room, and Mother,
Lost and angry at the sink, washed the dishes
Alone. She asked if I was all right, and I was . . .
Clear, for the first time. I felt bad for my dad,
Considered the baggage he kept stashed
Inside. My old man was honest and flawed.
He taught me to reserve judgment, that we can
Never truly know one another, but we may learn
To dance together—and put away our swords.