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Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2

Poetry

 

Bob Slaymaker


Bob Slaymaker (MA, New York U) lives, works, and teaches in New York City. His poems have appeared in
Callaloo, The Christian Science Monitor, Essence, Exquisite Corpse, and River Styx.

 

Tradition

My father rose early, 
much before school time. 
We'd hear his work-boots clunk 
on the kitchen floor, 
his key ring jangle, 
hushed voices of him and Mom over coffee 
speaking of the day ahead. Then he'd march off, 
to saw and hammer, according to design, 
beside others like him.

Home from school we tiptoed by the couch, 
where he napped before his evening job. 
Awake, he was a stubbled face, 
a smoke-roughened voiceŚwe treaded lightly. 
He'd return at midnight, 
while we slept, or pretended to, 
telling scary stories in bed. 
Mom invoked his name when her own tactics failed. 
Now and then we felt his hand, broad and callused, 
sting our bottoms.

One summer, he took two weeks off 
to build a playroom in the cellar. 
I helped sort the new two-by-fours, smooth like the foreheads of lovable horses: 
Flicker, Trigger, the Black Beauty 
Mom read to us on rainy afternoons. 
I sat on the beams while he sawed. 
He held them still while I sawed. 
We worked all day, made peanut-butter sandwiches 
with gobs of jelly, chocolate milk four tablespoons a glass 
(lucky Mom was at Nana's). 
We talked a lot those two weeks, 
he and L about fourth grade, 
tools, about baseball. 
He said he'd take us to the circus 
when it came to town.
That summer there were extra bills, 
so he had to work every weekend. 
When the circus came, Mom took us.

                     ***

Now sixty-six, with hair as sparse 
as our newborn daughter's, 
my father still rises early, 
remodeling the homes he once helped build. 
Once a month Deb and I drive up 
and sit with them around their old Formica table. 
I give my father little Susie to hold. 
He takes her as if she might break 
or start to cry and he'd have to hand her back. 
Mom makes coffee, and she and Deb and I talk. 
I look at my father, our tiny daughter nestled in his aging arms. 
He smiles awkwardly, then looks away, 
remembering when, because of need, 
he didn't spend time with his children.

 
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