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chesterfield kings

I am three and my father is about to take me up to bed. Everything about my father is suddenness and the rough, yet not unpleasant abrasion of fine grit sandpaper: his stubble, his hands, the flannel shirts he wears with a plumb line stencil, and a soft pack of Chesterfield Kings tucked into the pockets. His cigarettes are always slightly crooked. My parents, being born before people know better, throw me up in the air and carry me about with cigarettes dangling from their lips. I grow up in a strange, mystic fog of second hand smoke and lit cigarettes. It is the early sixties. People still use Brylcreem and the older, more “classy” types refuse to take their cue from Kennedy and give up their fedoras. My dad dresses like Jack Kerouac–or, rather, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack, and all those guys dress like my dad: working clothes, work boots. The difference is my father doesn’t write novels. he works 12 hour days in a paper factory, comes home to throw the ball around with me, is sometimes so tired that he falls asleep eating supper at the kitchen table.

I am burrowing my cheek, my face, the whole of my life in the smell of him–cigs, wood shavings, old spice, sweat. I will never know him again at this most basic of levels: sheer smell and touch. The flannel is red checkered, soft, and I like how I can rest myself against him. I know he won’t drop me. He would rather die than drop me. The television is on in the background because it is 1961 or 62, and the television is always on. I have fallen asleep on the living room floor, watching Bonanza with my family. At three or four I never make it through Bonanza. My father says: “Ok Kid, time to climb the mountain,” and we go up the stair. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” I smell the beer on my dad’s breath, clasp my sweaty, child’s hands around his neck, pull closer to the smell of the beer, pretending I’m still asleep. When I am older I will smell like him, and have all sort of pencils with which to draw plumb lines across the kitchen wall.

The first time I read Roethke’s Waltz poem, my father has been dead for a year.

The whiskey on your breath
could make a small boy dizzy
but I hung on like death
such waltzing is not easy.

The much more suburban students in my class at Rutgers claim the poem is about abuse. I am stunned, full of anger at them. What sort of roughness do they understand? Are they so attached to nice behavior that they don't know who this father is? We are all abusive, and the world we try to create and the world we inhabit are so oddly disparate: even when everything goes our way, even when it seems the will does not fail us, there is a gap between who we are and who we intended, and love must be born there--in that gap, where the wind howls, and all the things we believed we were protected against squeeze through. That is where the love of my father, and my love lives--where there is no semblance of protection, even though I know he would rather die than drop me. I go into the bathroom. I am 19, and soon I will have to drop out of Rutgers. All those people who loved me with lit cigarettes dangling, who smelled most wonderfully of beer and cheap after shave, are dead.

I am dizzy, falling onto the bathroom tiles. I puke up my breakfast, catch my breath, wash up, towel myself dry, burrow my face into my own flannel shirt. I smell of something other than my father, but the flannel is enough to bring him back to me. If he was here, I would kiss him, the way no one kisses in my family. I would tell him "fee, fie, foe, fum." My crying is so strong it gives me hiccups. I do not go back to class because if I look at the end of the poem again "And Waltzed me off to bed/ still clinging to his shirt," I will lose it in front of all those nice children. I will bring death into the village, and I am sick of death. Outside, the urban Ginko trees do not look especially spectacular in their Autumn foliage, but there is one Sugar Maple, at a part of campus which few seem to trouble with their frisbees, and I go there. Half the leaves have fallen already--a deep rich orange. The bark of the sugar maple is shaggy in places--thick, light gray strips of bark. I lay my cheek there. It is rough and doesn't lie to me. It will not support the weight of the seasons for much longer, but why live in those sorts of truths? The bark is also a truth, and the deep mulch stench of fully advanced Autumn, and the ants crawling in the rising sap of the maple's wounds. The way the wind riffles my flannel. this is just as true. Inside my pocket, lies an eraser, a pencil nub, a ticket stub from the train. My flannel, blue plaid, feels so good around me. On my head is a ski cap--black. I look like I could be dressed for the docks. I sit under the tree and write:

The night cannot invade my pockets,
I believe there are lamps within
illuminating photos, flecks of
laundry lint, ancient ticket stubs.
I will dig deep into these caves
and survive,
by some great epic of my hands.

I can never hate the Susquehanna, not if it took my last dollar, not if it made me look like a grade z version of some extra who got lost on his lunch break from a remake of The Grapes of Wrath and ended up standing poised against the wrong unforgiving sky. I spent my whole summer fishing, swimming, or mostly just watching the Susquehanna flow by, learned all its browns, and blacks, and greens, and those rare days when it was teal. I took the biggest brown bullhead I’ve ever laid eyes on out of this river, and a blue gill over a pound, and carp over 30. I watched the latterns of John boats pass in the dark and smelled the ghost of my father standing next to me, his old pack of chesterfield kings rolled up in his t shirt, smoke rising from his fresh lit cig, boxer’s muscles flexing as he casted into a long ago river. I cryed out to him through the dark to forgive me for not knowing what it meant to be a father. I told him I failed at everything, and the answer that came back to me on the river was his hand rubbing my red hair for good luck, and his raspy voice saying: “kid, we all fail at everything.”

I have become my father in every way: generous, paranoid, argumentative, quick to get angry, quick to forgive, at ease with children, at war with most of my contemporaries, a story teller, a bull shit artist,in love with the moon and the hours of dusk and dawn, unhappy yet joyous, full of life without ever forgetting or living beyond the sense of death. More hardened by labor, I would look like my dad except his voice box was cut out by my age, and I remember his stoma, and how I had nightmares that someone poured water down his throat and drowned him. When he was younger, and I was a little boy, he had a beautiful voice and he would sing to me Kevin Barry or You’ll Never Walk Alone. He told me stories about snagging suckers at the bottoms of the falls as a kid. it was the dperession and suckers weren’t too bad to eat if you stewed them until their many bones disolved. I guess I think of him whenever I look at a river. The first time he took me fishing, he woke me at 4:30 in the morning. It was also my first full cup of coffee, and we went down to a diner where all the working men ate– steel workers, long shoremen, some guys who worked at GM, my uncle pete from the chem plant. My father was on strike, and it was not his day to picket so he took me fishing. Strikes caused families to go belly up: no money coming in, the men restless and sometimes, if the strike went on too long, listeless, the women rising to take up the slack, my mom suddenly all dressed up to work a department store, or as a secretary. I couldn’t eat my pan cakes and sausage: too excited. First cast I got my line tangled in a big Maple tree, and my dad spent the next half hour untangling the snarl in the reel. I caught a bull head that day–ugly, beautiful slimey fish, its fin cutting me in my thumb and drawing blood. My dad had warned me: “watch his fin kid…he’ll get you good.” My dad rubbed the slime of the fish on my wound, and some cool mud. it took the slight poison out of it and it stopped itching. “The cure for the cat is the cat” he said. Later, he put peroxide and a band aid on the wound, and told me I did good. “You did good, kid.” If my mother had been there, she’d have said: “WELL Rocky, he did well.” And my father would have winked at her and said: ” You did good and well kid.”

All summer I was remembering and forgiving and asking forgiveness of my father. He was on my mind daily. The more I went to the river, the more I thought of him– all those little catfish and carp we caught in the poluted Rahway river of the late 60′s and early 70′s… then the white cats and small stripers on the Hudson river when we visited grandmom Weil, and, finally, after my mother’s death, how my father no longer wanted to go fishing. Fishing made him remember my mother. There was no wife to come home to, to have his grammar and cursing corrected by, no one to admire our fish. I did not know then that mothers are also girlfriends, and lovers, and companions, and my father had been abandoned as a child, raised by his aunt and uncle. My mom was his only real family. When he lost her, we must have reminded him of his loss–how she was gone. Having grown passed my 50 th year, I can forgive him for wanting to die after my mother went into the ground because a part of every one in my family died with my mother. She was what held us together, and although we still loved each other, we stopped being family after the cancer took her.

What can a river take? Everything. Everything will be swept away. The river is an ongoing reclamation and demolition project. It remains by efacing itself every second of every hour. It abraids, erodes, washes, absolves, dooms, drowns, destroys, and gives life to all that surrounds it. it is in us–the memory of our cells. It tells us the loss is in– not of– the loss in things. It is in us, or we are not truly alive. Those who can ignore a river can’t possibly live in the sense I mean. To be truly alive, is to keep one hand on the wheel of death, to see that there is a fall to all to this, a fall we must endure, and before you go over that, you may as well take note of the heron, and the kingfisher, and you ought to love the child wounding his thumb on the bullhead’s fin, and you ought to love the father who takes the cig out of his mouth, and blows one perfect circle of smoke into the night’s air, and says: ” Hey kid, nice fish.”