The Spaghetti Matador

Like compass points we held

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.

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