Friday, April 11, 2014

Poem a Day: 11


The Right Words to Say It

I’ve tried to write this again and again, but the details
slip, and the right words stay safely in their box. But let me

begin again: one August, long ago, we packed the new car
(Mom wanted the Audi Fox but Dad picked the Dodge Aspen)

breathless with luggage, waved to Dad and Dave Hess,
standing like brothers on the sidewalk in Pittsburgh, and

headed south, just the four of us, Mom and Erica and Conrad
and I, shipping our lily white bodies and native language

to the border, holding our American hopes and fears in
our laps like  flustered doves in cardboard boxes.

After Brownsville we hit Matamoros, Mexico, floating past
a Mayflower van in the ditch, three men in faded Cowboy

t-shirts watching it crackle, fists on their hips, faces creased
with unreadable smiles. Yes: this image sticks.  And also

the dark glances from people on the sides of the road, and
the rutted yellow road, and the cloud of yellow dust that we

raised in our wake, coating the rows of shacks thrown
together from road-signs and rotted wood with a golden

choking halo.  Is this where we’re going to live? we asked.
Mom shook her head. At least, I think so – I can’t remember.

At the hotel the man at the desk smiled like the men in the
ditch – so sorry, they had no reservation for us.  Crying, we

drove to the dirty airport to pick up Dad, his face already
sweating in the airless room. Don’t worry, he said, we’ll

sort this out. After all, he’d brought his stern brown eyes and
his flat stomach, his muscular biceps and his excellent

Columbian Spanish, his Zapata mustache and his fancy gilded
passport filled with diplomatic stickers. He waved it

in the deskman’s face like a magic wand, transforming
the man’s shit-eating smile into an obsequious little bow

and then a key, which he placed in Dad’s palm with a flourish
like a bird from a hat.  Dad grinned, hefting our luggage,

muscles bulging, and herded us to the room. I think I felt
a little empty.  I definitely felt scared. We’d achieved a moment

of cultural clarification: we could not speak the right
language. Keys will appear and rooms will open only

for the right words, the proper smile and papers, for
flexed muscles under a good-looking man’s shirt.

That night, though we didn’t yet know it, we set down our
boxes of hopes and dreams and lit them on fire. We let them

burn, silent, then lay down on our beds of ashes, awake
together in the suffocating room, listening to Dad snore,

our heads swirling with dust and shacks and unknown words,
with airports and roads and fists and smiles, with strangers

and row after row of locked rooms, knowing nothing, really,
but this:  we were a hell of a long way from home.

April 11, 2014

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