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William Alton

A Good Thing

Do you remember camping after the wedding?
The wind shaped trees, the sea grass growing
through the sand? I remember when you told me
you’d come with me, inwardly I was scared
as hell. We’d only been out a few times.
Once to dinner. Once to a movie. And now
you were coming away with me for a week
on the beach, the ocean roaring all night,
the probability of rain mixed with sunlight
fragmenting into color. I bought an air mattress
big enough for the two of us, a tent with room
for our things. I packed rope and a hatchet,
food for ten days and beer because I liked the taste
of it at night after walking all day under the pines.
The first night, we made camp and built a fire.
I sat in my chair, smoking cigarettes, reluctant
to suggest bed because I didn’t know what
you expected. Would there be sex? I hoped
there would be, but then again, why ruin
a good thing? We were doing fine without it.
Still, my skin called for yours. My hands itched
with lust. How do these things get started?
I was so scared, my stomach burned.
But then you called me into bed and you waited
there naked, on the sleeping bag. I should’ve known
you’d take the lead. You always have.

A Visit To My Grandfather’s Farm

Everything has been taken
from my grandfather’s farm.
The paint on the house is bubbled
and broken. Bare wood catches the rain
and snow. The fields have all gone
to weeds. The barn is tilted
on its foundation. The well is overgrown.
Still the sunlight is clear and the day
is humid and heavy. I am no longer
the boy hiding in the chicken coop
avoiding chores. I’m only visiting
with my family, trying to show them
where I come from, only this isn’t it.
All they see is the ruin. They don’t know
what my grandfather did to keep this place
even when the cancer had eaten him hollow.
They can’t connect me to the trees
growing along the creek or the coyote calling
in the fields.

About My Past

His eyes settle on the space
between us, unfocused and empty.
The needle in his arm, bloodied
and dirty. He rolls onto the couch
and sets his head in my lap.
I do not move for fear of waking
him. He’s easier to love after he’s fixed.
Gentler and kind. He remembers
my name and brings me flowers
from the garden. I draw the afghan
down from the back of the couch
and cover his hips with the crotched
links my mother made when I was a kid.
He doesn’t like to hear about my past.
My stories annoy him. All he wants
is the right now. All he wants
is for me to keep him happy
as if I were some kind angel looking
over him while he stumbles
through his life from one fix
to another. I tell myself
I should leave. I should walk out
and find a man who’ll take me places,
who’ll bring me home to his parents,
unashamed and happy to hold my hand,
but I can’t just leave. I love him,
but I sure as hell don’t know why.

After His Death

After my father died, I wrote and wrote and wrote.
I sat in my father’s study and wrote poems
over and over again. I wrote an elegy for my father.
That would’ve pissed him off.
He believed words were for the living. The dead heard
nothing. They were deaf and blind. They did not read
or breath. My father’s words were alive even after his death.
They kept him alive for years. His words breathed
through the paper and into the world.
My father wouldn’t approve of me mourning him
with poetry. He would bellow and crumple the page
into a ball and throw it into a corner.
But my father’s not here. He’s dead now, a secret
told in church. I keep his ashes in an urn. He sits
on the shelve of his office. This is where he belongs
if he belongs anywhere. I imagine he is most comfortable
among the books that made him famous.

I pour a glass of wine and smoke a cigarette
at my father’s desk. I open my computer that keeps
my words. I sit and write. I talk to myself in the gloomy
light. I have become my father now that he’s gone.
I still walk quietly in the darkness.
I sit in his chair and read his books. My father was not the man
he wrote about. In his books my father was a fragile man,
a man of silence. In life my father was all noise
and light. He shined his rage on the world,
a torch of anger. He was a ranting mad man.
I knew my father for what he was, but I didn’t know
what he wanted to be. My father wrote of sex, sadness and suicide.
He wasn’t alone in his work. There was always someone
to love. I’m a pebble in the stream of his words.
He carried me in his shoe to remind him
of the world outside of his mind.

After the Stroke

Strange now to think of you without words.
in a rented room with caretakers to cook
for you, to run you to the store for your cigarettes,
changing your clothes and doing your laundry.
All my life you worked two jobs, bringing in
just enough for food and shelter. You slept
on the couch through the day so we could play
in the yard, young boys, digging holes
and pretending to shot each other with sticks.
Strange now to think of you old and withered
in your home so far away. I was the one you picked
to love more than the others. I was the one you rescued.
You saved me, but you didn’t love me enough.
I knew, even as a child, there would be conditions.
I knew you would come to a line and refuse to cross it.
If I pushed far enough, you would abandon me
to my fate. I could die without a tear being shed,
without grief or regret. I went to the line, but I didn’t cross.
I came home in the end, where you waited. I came
home lived a life knowing that you’d made sacrifices.
You always told me I would be your favorite, but you told
me without using the words. I was the one who kept you
up nights with my wild notions.

Now you sleep in a home on the other side of the country.
Now you are my sister’s problem. She visits and takes
you to her house to spend time with your grandkids.
She sits with you in the snow and smokes cigarettes.
Strange now to think I couldn’t repay your kindness
with anything close to love.

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