…And a Jay Alighted Gently Thereupon It
Emmy, not tonight; will you just play with my hair?
You know I want you but my head won’t be in it.
Joel says he thinks the cat ate the old man’s hand
Because some of the knuckle joints had tooth grooves in them
And we only ended up finding two fingers.
Did you have any clue that thing’s name was Tzedek?
It was all stiff and shriveled up beneath his chair
And when I pulled it out from there and picked it up
Its collar snagged up on the wood and slipped right off
‘Cause there just wasn’t any mass left to its head.
You remember it? It’s the one from Mercy’s wake,
The one Joel kicked at and called a “tiresome fuck”
Because it kept rubbing up on his black Dockers.
Until that kick the old man hadn’t cried all day;
He’d just stood by the casket fixing Mercy’s hair.
First words out of Joel’s trap this afternoon were
“Looks like that proud ol’ Engelmann’s seen better days”;
Kid’s caustic. He just stood behind his old man’s chair
Without even looking down and rattled the thing
Until the body sort of tipped off to the side.
The whole thing couldn’t have weighed more than thirty pounds;
Whatever musculature he had when he passed
Must have sort of desiccated or evanesced
‘Cause when I first saw him through the picture window
It made me think of that Beksiński you showed me.
This was the oriel that overlooks the vale.
He had the deadbolt turned over on the Dutch doors
And I couldn’t find the hide-a-key anywhere
So I went around back to try the glass slider
And I saw him as soon as I rounded the house.
For a moment I thought I’d have to break the glass
So I trudged on out to that wind-thrown silver spruce
In the middle of the clearing beyond the barn
And pried some gneiss out from the clay between the roots;
Tried the door when I got back and it wasn’t locked.
The old man had this vintage 1961
Academic year calendar from CSU
Sprawled out on the windowsill in front of his chair.
July first fell on a Saturday that year, too;
I think he reused the thing when years repeated.
I sort of knocked one of his legs when I hurdled it
To get a better look at what he’d written
And it made his whole frame shed this thick pall of dust.
The window grilles sifted the morning into shafts
And I pulled my shirt collar over my nose.
Did you know you die from CO2 poisoning
Well before you actually run out of air?
It essentially acidifies your system
And your own blood becomes toxic to all your cells.
The gas trapped in my shirt tasted like flat tonic.
I reached in to the apse and bumped the side panel
Of the bay window until it shivered a bit
And popped open wide enough to inhale the day;
It swept quite a bit of grit off the calendar
And lapped at the corner of the page ‘til it turned.
His cursive was beautiful but inconsistent,
A kind of miscellany of styles and sizes
Which he seemed to toggle between instinctively,
As if the figures he wrote governed their own forms
And he did what he could to pen them faithfully.
All the script was six or seven shades of faded
So below each date there was this gradient
Between the stuff he wrote back in ‘61
And the more recent items from this past summer;
The page looked corrugated and topographic.
Over however many decades the old man
Developed this habit of tilting his letters
More and more precipitously off to the right
So they seemed suspended, arrested in freefall,
Sort of deformed by ever having been set down.
And anytime he wrote an ‘S’ it rode the line
In a way that made it seem fastened to the thing,
Like he’d punched a rivet through the essence of it
That let it list to near prostrate but never drift.
Is it light that makes ink fade or is it the ink?
When the muffled chatter of some faraway jay
Came enveloped by a heavy breath through the rift
I sort of remembered myself and my station;
Those convective winds kicked up around eleven
And the stacked shafts of morning light had grown steep.
I figured if the old man had been my own dad
I wouldn’t want some neighbor I’d only met twice
Prowling around his place without my being there
So I set myself to finding Joel’s number
And sparing a play-by-play it was in the desk.
I tried his cell a few times and got forwarded
So I looked up the number for Samuel & Son’s
Because I figured he was probably held up downtown
Doing “the Lord’s work” – remember when he said that? –
But his aide said he had meetings out in Geshur.
Oh, by the way – and just take this at face value –
Joel’s consulting for the prosecution of
That Ute boy who had his pals stab his step-brother
And the kid’s maternal grandpa owns Geshur Lodge;
That’s the casino where we couldn’t afford drinks.
Anyway, Joel called back a few minutes later
With “sincerestapologies” for missing me
And the same practiced Jeremiad on law work
I suspect he recites for his wife when she cries;
Catenary slurs spanned the gaps between his words.
When he finally showed up just before noon
And made that flippant comment about the old spruce
His irreverence smelled a little like Patrón
And I didn’t get a great look at his Dockers
But I’m pretty sure there was lipstick on his fly.
I wanted to start up with him about lying
But I chewed the tip of my tongue and nodded toward
The corpse tipping precipitously in the chair
Because when Joel shook the thing I noticed it:
Two brittle fingers pressed against a hollow throat.
The kid finally looked as though he felt something;
A shallow set of muscles tensed above his brow
And when he loosened his trembling, white-knuckle
Grasp on the chair and moved to fix his old man’s hair
The heat drained from his booze-flush cheeks back to his hands.
Again the room breathed and a pregnant July breeze
Delivered the warm, sweet smell of wild strawberries
And sun-kissed larkspur leaves from some abiding place;
It came swiftly and with sufficient vigor to
Toss more madly the pages on the windowsill.
I could see Joel took interest in the sound
Though his head remained bowed and his fingers still moved
Through the thin, silver threads on the old man’s scalp.
His blue eyes were now wide open, wet and seeking
And they quickly settled on the source of the noise.
Another noontime gust, this one the strongest yet,
Surged again through the vent between the window panes
And brought with it the bright scent of thawed spruce resin.
Joel walked slowly past me to the windowsill
And stood before it breathing loudly through his nose.
He stilled the fluttering pages with a soft touch
And used the pad of his thumb to toss the fine dust
Which remained thereupon to that earnest east wind;
The final beams of morning sunlight flared brightly
For the offering and enshrined him at their ends.
I watched as he read it; he did so silently.
It wasn’t until my ears began their ringing
That I asked how long he suspected it had been.
“The old man died last year on a Friday in June”;
He said it quietly but with hard certitude.
I wondered how he knew; he bowed and read aloud:
“Winds took the spruce; just missed the house; heart won’t slow down.”
And he remembered sedately in his own words:
“There used to be two big trees out in that clearing;
Mom’s fell awhile back in another summer storm.”
Joel remained still with his hands pressed to the sill
As the bluebells and lodge-poles out beyond the barn
Sought to recall all their shadows not yet gathered
And the light of noon which anointed his forearms
Retreated slow along the contours of his wrists.
“He always penned her name with such…” He paused, searching,
“…adoration. Look at how he put down her ‘M’
With that melancholy list, those strokes like… worship.
It’s been eleven years since that Friday in June…”
He touched it, “…that’s the first time he wrote ‘Mercy’ tall.”
Then the crooning chatter of that familiar jay
Came enveloped by a heavy breath through the rift.
Joel inhaled deeply and deliberately
And for a just moment he seemed to forget himself,
His wet eyes followed some motion in the distance.
Guess it's been eleven years since that day in June,
Since the first time the old man put down Joel’s name
As if the figures therein were governed by grace.
In the middle of the clearing beyond the barn
A crooked Engelmann spruce grew toward sober skies…