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
by some great epic of my hands.