bookmark_borderBad Dad

I wipe tiredness from my eyes.
It’s morning, another day survived.

And so begins the drip of last-night scoops
of coffee into a mug, World’s Greatest Dad.

I fail to measure up to that cup’s depth,
a half-assed bundle of Irish rage

and remembrance of children dancing gingerly
as I brood in my La-Z-Boy.

I exchange mementos of saved ticket stubs
and photos taken at the zoo in front

of the Gross Outpost in Africa
where birds pick ticks from rhinos and the kids

pose—daughter as tick remover, son
as tick removee—for a warm, toaster

strudel, strawberry with cream-cheese icing
squeezed from a plastic pouch. This is

the sedimentary layer of my family
for which no fossil record exists—

just remnants from a psychiatrist
office, the strength of Prozac and Adderall

noted on the clipboard of someone
more attuned to the ebb and flow

of family dynamics, one’s mouth
a bucket in the act of fill and pour,

I’m a feather on the end of a cap of a man
halfway between dawn and dusk, a time

for white-tailed deer and auto insurance
deductibles. A fur-patch adorns my cracked bumper.

I loved my mother, but did not like her.
This is the legacy my children pull

from the sand and wash at the water’s edge:
A scallop shell nudging its way from ivory

to orange, and its edge, sharp and varied,
biting into the soft fat of a child’s fingers.

This poem appeared in East by Northeast, September 2020.

bookmark_borderJust Like Your Mother

Three years ago, before the separation,
hate-spattered yellow, Sherwin Williams,

the boundary of our bodies growing jagged,
then dashed, to suggest disputed territory.

I imagine you sleeping with the same intensity
of a squinting cat. You are not asleep,

yet things go more literally, smoothly,
as when the fret at the foot of the floor grieves openly,

the way morphine spiggles out the door and down the stairs.
Look what you made me do: a snake-eye roll of the zodiac.

This poem appeared in Midway Journal, 2020.

bookmark_borderCourtside Tickets

What stands between your words and my actions,
is a barrel of government contractors, an asterisk
along the ankles, a four-letter word for treason.
I am at this very point two sides stapled together
and presented lengthwise; a catapult of shame
and a horse in need of re-shoeing.

There is a precipice of pupil and promise,
a red velvet rope at the local theater, designed
to simultaneously keep out and in what percolates
through and permeates this very layer of decorum.

Having observed your role from the streets
through open windows, I set free my autopsy
of allegiance, a bridge so close my feet stumble
over it as if in lightness—an angel or something
less arcane.

Dear mother, I have stood before you and recognized
my role in this transaction. I am the rabbit, always late,
and you, dear queen, a slip of paper sporting spade or heart,
forever spilling sprinkles over a stand of mushrooms.

The caterpillar in the next chapter alternates puffs of smoke
from a half-brass hookah, and thumbs through the small print
of the local phonebook for your name and address.

All things being equal, a church bell rings and your head
decides there’s nothing left to do but roll.

This poem appeared in The Ocotillo Review, July 2020.

bookmark_borderBreaking Point

My mother spent my teenage years saying
she couldn’t take it anymore, but she did.
She had no choice but to take it
7 days a week.

Chugging coffee over the sink
before her commute to work, looking out
the back window where the sun would cut
into the morning. A lit cigarette
in the ashtray beside her.

At night she’d make a pot of spaghetti
swollen double size on account
of the hour on boil. A sheen of grease
on the sauce from the ground beef
she never drained.

Among the days of taking it were the nights
of vodka roulette, I never knowing which
mother would show up:

The funny mother who slurred her words
and danced me into the dining room
where the good china would click
in step with our feet.

Or the other one who knew how
to exact the maximum pain
per square inch of fingernail.

She was some kind of crazy I promised
myself I’d never become.

There are a lot of things we shoulder
that if we were asked we’d rather decline:
a night lost in the woods, a month
spent nursing an incision where a fist-sized
mass of cancer has been removed.

The phone calls where it’s obvious
her memory is skipping stones across a pond.

To her, my daughter is always in the sixth
grade, not in high school. My son
still plays with toy cars she sends
and the tooth fairy leaves you money
for your teeth rather than taking a wrench
to your jaw because you took too long
to find the TV remote.

Unable to take it, she continues even now,
rolling down the window of her car
as she gives the woman at the pharmacy
her order: Big Mac, no pickle, fries.

This poem appeared in Ponder Review, Vol. 4, 2020

bookmark_borderSpring Flowers in a Vase

The husband brings home a vase filled
with white daisies because he knows his wife
likes surprises, and there have been so few
lately. The vase is clear with internal
cracks that don’t quite run through
the entire side. He had joked with the cashier
that he hoped it would hold water, which
it does as his wife fills it and places it
in the middle of the kitchen island.

The vase bereft of flowers finds its way
to a bookcase in a guest bedroom,
where the wife sometimes gets away and
reads classics she meant to read when younger:
Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre. She notices
it is dusty so she takes it to the hall
bathroom and rinses it, wiping the smooth glass
with a blue hand towel. She smiles remembering
her husband’s warm smile. It has been a year since
he passed away from a heart attack.

The woman’s niece is boxing up belongings
for a yard sale, tells a neighbor that her
aunt is adjusting to assisted living:
no room for all this stuff. The vase
sells quickly to an artist who uses it
for a still-life filled with orange tulips,
then sets it on his table where it collects
dried brushes and rubber bands from the mail.
He one day empties it before driving west
to visit his mother, his rusting hatchback full of gas
and packed with his annual stock of paintings.

His mother takes the vase and smiles widely.
She begins to transfer lilies and gardenias
from a cheap green vase to this new one,
stopping to discuss all the baking she has done:
sugar cookies with white icing in their
respective tins for family and neighbors,
peanut butter fudge just for him, and
a pecan pie resting next to the oven.
He shows her the painting of the tulips and
she carries it into the dining room.
She takes down a painting of sailboats
and asks her son to hang it right there.

bookmark_borderThe Easy Way Out

I rearrange my grandmother in loose-leaf pages,
each poem a memory, a sterling trinket in a felt pouch
I keep by my side, often touching it throughout
the day, the way one checks a phone
through a pocket. There is the poem where
she teaches me about the many tastes and states
of salt, the one where I learn to measure
for biscuits using my hands: a palmful of lard,
a turn of the wrist for a pour of buttermilk.

She remembered growing up poor in Kentucky,
going to town in a horse-pulled buggy—an old mare
name Beatrice—after a girl that once caught my
great-grandfather’s eye, something I’ve saved
for a future piece. Her father’s cruel yet loving
legacy continues to this day within me
and my daughter: quick to love, quicker to anger.

For this I now take a pill, a form of bipolar disorder
that is spread out along the whole of my family tree,
like an infected dogwood with large leaf spots.
I told my uncle about Risperidone after his last
episode, every door ripped from its hinges.
I told my brother after he grew angry and threw
his girlfriend out because she found out he was
cheating. So far, no takers.

There is a form of adrenaline that comes with rage,
the kind I always imagined could lift cars off
children, hit baseballs over fences, but I only
know fists through sheetrock, broken plates,
and an arm through whatever stands in my way.

My grandmother married a man like her father,
full of laughter and mirth on a short fuse, telling
how she would sometimes go for walks on the farm
when she felt the thunder building in his mind,
the small ripples in the water’s surface
that indicate something big is right below.

My children called it walking on eggshells, knew
when I had this charged energy within me and was
ready to single out any nonsense reason to lash
out. I was a calculated hothead, a man trying
to apply logic to a misaligned emotional state.
This anger was always followed by regret and guilt,
which I tried to justify away but never could.
It was like trying to assign meaning to a tornado
or a plague, that somehow the victim played a
role in all this.

My son is like my father, mostly calm, only
occasional anger bubbling up in understandable
measure. He was the steady hand on mine that
tried to assuage the monster within me when it
surfaced: a 30-pound catfish covered in scars
and missing part of its left soft dorsal fin.
I do not miss it, swimming through life with a hook
in my mouth because no line was strong enough
to reel me in.

My grandmother lived in the country and I loved it
when she accelerated on the gravel road
near her house, the car shaking like a bull
before it throws the rider.

I am now the person I intend to be, a pile
of expired maps on my passenger seat as I try
to navigate the days before me, the road
transitioning from gravel to blacktop.

This poem appeared in The Ocotillo Review, July 2020.