1. Old Man
Old man, it’s four flights up and for what?
Your room is hardly bigger than your bed.
Puffing as you climb, you are a brown woodcut
Stooped over the thin tail and the wornout tread.
The room will do. All that’s left of the old life
Is jampacked on shelves from floor to ceiling
Like a supermarket: your books, your dead wife
Generously fat in her polished frame, the congealing
Bowl of cornflakes sagging in their instant milk,
Your hot plate and your one luxury, a telephone.
You leave your door open, lounging in maroon silk
And smiling at the other roomers who live alone.
Well, almost alone. Through the old-fashioned wall
The fellow next door has a girl who comes to call.
Twice a week at noon during their lunch hour
They puase by your door to peer into your world.
They speak sadly as if the wine they carry would sour
Or as if the mattress would not keep them curled
Together, extravagantly young in their tight lock.
Old man, you are their father holding court
In the dingy hall until their alarm clock
Rings and unwinds them. You unstopper the quart
Of brandy you’ve saved, examining the small print
In the telephone book. The phone in your lap is all
That’s left of your family name. Like a Romanoff prince
You stay the same in your small alcove off the hall.
Castaway, your time is a flat sea that doesn’t stop,
With no new land to make for and no new stories to swap.
I’m at pains to know what else I could have done
But move him out of his parish, him being my son;
Him being the only one at home since his Pa
Left us to beat the Japs at Okinawa.
I put the gold star up in the front window
Beside the flag. Alterations is what I know
And what I did: hems, gussets and seams.
When my boy had the fever and the bad dreams
I paid for the clinic exam and a pack of lies.
As a youngster his private parts were undersize.
I thought of his Pa, that muscly old laugh he had
And the boy was thin as a moth, but never once bad,
As smart as a rooster! To hear some neighbors tell,
Your kid! He’ll go far. He’ll marry well.
So when he talked of taking the cloth, I thought
I’d talk him out of it. You’re all I got,
I told him. For six years he studied up. I prayed
Against God Himself for my boy. But he stayed.
Christ was a hornet inside his head. I guess
I’d better stitch the zipper in this dress.
I guess I’ll get along. I always did.
Across the hall from me’s an old invalid,
Aside of him, a young one he carries on
With a girl who pretends she comes to use the john.
The old one with the bad breath and his bed all mussed,
He smiles and talks to them. He’s got some crust.
Sure as hell, what else could I have done
But pack up and move in here, him being my son?
3. Young Girl
Dear love, as simple as some distant evil
We walk a little drunk up these three flughts
Where you tacked a Dufy print above your army cot.
The thin apartment doors on the way up will
Not tell us. We are saying, we have our rights
And let them see the sandwiches and wine we bought
For we do not explain my husband’s insane abuse
And we do not say why your wild-haired wife has fled
Or that my father opened like a walnut and then was dead.
Your palms fold over me like knees. Love is the only use.
Both a little drunk in the afternoon
With the forgotten smart of August on our skin
We hold hands as if we were still children who trudge
Up the wooden tower, on up past that close platoon
Of doors, past the dear old man who always asks us in
And the one who sews like a wasp and will not budge.
Climbing the dark halls, I ignore their papers and pails,
The twelve coats of rubbish of someone else’s dim life.
Tell them need is an excuse for love. Tell them need prevails.
Tell them I remake and smooth your bed and am your wife.