The shabby, dishonored, unnamed ghost
who haunted my parents’ dream life like a guest

must have been, I realized thirty years late,
my father’s alcoholic father, who, light

on his feet, jitterbugged through our Pittsburgh childhood
with debts, girlfriends, his leathery moods—

a figure beyond our suburban world.
When his car roared up, my mother’s lips curled

downward, not that we cared, glad for his hoarse
attentions, his dark growl-laugh, the source,

I now know, of my father’s apish guffaws.
Why didn’t we recognize his flaws,

the headaches that kept him in bed, weekend mornings,
his lack of a job? There must have been other warnings,

and yet we were too young for the secrets slurred
in every sentence, almost every word.

Only once, I recall, did we visit him.
Somewhere in Ohio, caretaker at a nursing home—

no, a funeral parlor! A third wife vaguely in attendance.
(They lived, perhaps, upstairs?) The memories make no sense,

not that it matters; but, without him, would
my father’s life have been plain sailing? Almost good?

They were both drawn, despite a lack of guile,
to the trumpeting, sad world of sales,

where, one wounded summer, as if into my inheritance,
I walked our suburb’s rackety fences,

trying to peddle steak knives, carving knives,
to wary, bewildered, perfumed wives.

My father saw my discouragement, and then despair,
and rescued me from it. Life is not fair.

Why, now, remember the vain, pasty man
who, one winter morning, waltzed into the kitchen

to demand breakfast from my mother, and perhaps more,
though he had died three years before?

It took the rest of her life to settle the score.

 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 5, on page 33
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